uncovering oneself (6)
My head throbbed like a man stuck upside down on the Big-Wheel carousel. Blackouts were called blackouts for a reason, not knowing which way was up or down. I’d flopped onto the couch in our living room with my jacket twisted into a Gordian knot, a sack of sleeping bruised flesh, like a brown garden snail pulled backwards out of its shell. I’d dropped a fag and it burnt through denim. My leg had a spoon-sized blister, but I was non-flammable and must have rolled over the lit end to put it out. I tried laughing it off. My seared leg only hurt when I moved or thought about it. Outside the bin lorries rattled up the lanes, getting closer and closer. The workers shouted good-naturedly at each other. I’d told Mrs Boyle in Primary One I wanted to be a binman when I grew up. She didn’t like that idea. She encouraged me to be an astronaut or at the very least a doctor. Coughing, sputtering, jack-knifed into a sitting position and spitting up yellow phlegm into the ashtray at my feet wasn’t, however, the kind of thing she’d have approved of, or what had woken me.
Flash photography. A woman stood with her back against the living-room door. She’d taken a shot of me with her camera phone. She held out the phone and filmed me as I spluttered and tried to stop coughing and speak. I looked for a packet of fags on the debris on the table that also has spilled onto the floor.
‘I’ve phoned the police,’ she said. Well spoken. Very sure of herself. Armani sunglasses were parked on top of shoulder length dark hair, sculpted around a broad face. Eye shadow, a pin-stripe candyfloss coloured dress and thick red lips had me thinking of cosmetic surgery.
I needed a new brain myself. One that worked. I held my hand up to show that I’d speak in a minute. ‘Whit you doin’ here?’ My voice crackled like a lovesick adolescent on the phone.
‘I could ask you the same question.’ She moved in closer and flashed, lighting up the gloom, another photograph of my non-smiling face. A thick gold crucifix jerked and swung out of her cleavage as she stepped back to her station near the door.
‘I live here.’
‘No you don’t.’
‘I do.’ I didn’t have time to argue. I sprung up and rushed towards the door. Her IPhone thwacked to the floor, as she turned and fled, fear in her dark coloured eyes. I followed her down the hall. The front door was half-open, the cheap plywood round the lock splintered. Her feet clattered down the lane, lost in the hubbub of bins being dragged to and fro. I’d a distinct memory of being unable to find my key and taking flying kicks and booting the door.
I almost didn’t make the lavy pan. My fingers working against me on the button on my denims. As I squatted it was more reddish pus than solid. No sooner was I sitting than I was standing spewing up into the sink underneath the window. My guts turned inside out. I couldn’t get a breath and felt like I was drowning in my own bile and shit. Eyes streaming with tears, my hands patted around the floor searching for any bog roll. I stepped out of denims and did - what any gentleman would do - and used my boxers to wipe my ass.
There was little time for relaxation exercises. The front door flew open and, in a double whammy, the toilet door. Two cops stood looking in at me, both of them short and stocky, but one of them a woman.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked, turning her head to the side and grimacing, her fingers cupped over her nose, a flaky-skinned sore at the side of her mouth. ‘And what are you doing here?’
The cop behind her grinned at her discomfort. ‘Get yourself sorted and get out here now,’ he said.
‘I’m Josh Connelly,’ I said, shamefaced, pulling my denims up. ‘Sorry about the smell.’
I ran my fingers under the cold water tap, there wasn’t a slither of soap to wash them, or a towel to dry them. I wiped them clean on the side of my denims. The woman cop stood aside, her eyelashes were blond and almost invisible, giving her gaze a startled open-eyed look. The man behind her shuffling to the side, blocked access to the front door. They followed me from the hall into the living room, their heads swivelling from left to right, faces expressionless, taking in the mess.
I sat on the edge of the couch, trying to look at ease. The woman cop wandered through and into the kitchen and I knew she’d be checking out the bedroom. Her fellow officer stood blue-serge square in front of me, a tonsure of hair round the side of his head, the cap in his hand the only hint his rigid demeanour had softened.
‘I live here,’ I said.
He didn’t speak, waiting until his partner made a tour of the house. When she returned her lips were pressed tight and she jiggled her head, signalling to him she hadn’t found anything incriminating.
‘So,’ she addressed me, ‘what’s your name and date of birth?’
He pulled out a notebook and scribbled in my details.
‘Where were you born?’
‘Helensburgh,’ I said.
He was already on the phone checking me out.
‘You say you live here. But the front door has been damaged and we’ve had a report of housebreaking. Where are your keys?’
I dug into the side pockets of my denims and the back pockets, playing out the charade of searching for them. Then I dipped into my jacket pockets and felt the key in my top pocket, where I always kept it. I was too relieved to wonder how I’d missed it the night before. I allowed myself to smirk as I held it up triumphantly.
He stood looking down at me and the spread of tobacco ash and douts mashed into the carpet and took the key out of my hand.
‘Sorry man, I was a bit drunk last night,’ I said.
He stomped towards the front door.
She made me fidget and search down on the carpet for something to smoke with her unfailing gaze. ‘Any convictions?’ she asked.
I looked up at her. ‘Just the usual stuff, breach of the peace, drunk in charge of a bike. Some on the spot fines for drinking in a public place.’ I didn’t tell her I hadn’t paid them and they’d doubled and trebled. I was sure they’d already checked and I was clean.
He came back with the key and held it out for me to take. ‘It fits,’ he said, a simple factual statement.
Inside, I was doing hula hoops with relief, but that was cut short when she spoke.
‘We’ve got a lady outside, the owner of the property. She says she sublet this flat to a Susan Brown and she’d no knowledge that you were staying here.’
‘Have you anything with your name and address on it?’ he asked.
For once I was glad that the burro had sent me a letter telling me that because I’d failed to attend an interview my Jobseeker's Allowance had been terminated. I’d stuffed it down the side of the couch and pulled it out to show them. I handed it to her.
She sniffed and smoothed out the envelope. ‘It says here the letter is care-of Fraser,’ she said and gave me another one of her looks.
‘That’s my girlfriend. We were getting engaged.’
‘And where is she?’
‘Dunno.’ I used the armrest to push up off the couch and sit a bit straighter. ‘That’s what I meant to do. I meant to phone you guys the other day there and report her missing.’
They exchanged glances. He stepped forward and spoke for them. ‘And this girlfriend,’ he said with a nasal twang, ‘what’s her name, date of birth and where was she born?’ He pulled out his notebook and pen.
‘Jane Fraser,’ I said. ‘I’m no’ sure of her date of birth. She was born on a Leap Year: 1996, 1997, or it might even have been 1998. Spooky eh? I’m murder with birthdays. Always forgetting.’ I was the only one smiling at my ineptitude. I bumbled on, ‘but sometimes she calls herself Jane Sykes, because of her work’.
‘Where does she work?’ the woman cop asked. ‘And where was she born?’ She tried raising an eyebrow to remind me I hadn’t answered that part yet.
‘Oh, she was born here in Scotland. She’s well known to you. Bit of a girl. Was in that Home at Risk Street for most of her life. Still visits the staff sometimes.’ I needed a fag that much that I picked up a dout from the floor and lit it, the acrid fumes filling my lungs for a puff –not winning any friends – before it spluttered out.
‘What kind of work does she do that she needs to change...’ he consulted his notebook, ‘...her name from Fraser to Sykes?’
‘She works for Sinclair’s,’ I said. From the expression on their faces I knew they didn’t what kind of work I was talking about. ‘It’s an escort agency.’ I added, ‘it’s a classy one’.
‘George Sinclair?’ He bit down on the name, jaw clenched.
‘Yeh, I think that’s the owner.’ I looked from one to the other for clues.
‘When did she go missing?’ she asked.
‘Tuesday or Wednesday morning.’ My brain was fuddled and I was no longer quite sure. ‘She just never come home.’
‘I’ll call it in,’ she said, wandering out of earshot and into the hall.
‘Have you got a picture of her? he asked.
I gawked about the room as if the answer was sitting on top of the mantelpiece or hidden among the knickknacks. ‘Aye,’ I said eventually, pulling out my Noika and flicking through the photos. ‘That’s her there.’ It was an arm’s length selfie in which she was resting her head on my shoulders the two of us mugging madly at the camera phone.
He cocked his head, taking a gander. I thought I caught a flicker of interest, because most men found Jane, if not exactly beautiful, dazzling. The rustle of chaffing nylon made him turn towards the other cop. My arm dropped and the picture screen went back to my screensaver a picture of Bogey.
She shook her head, expression in neutral. ‘Nothing,’ she said to him.
‘You want to report Jane missing, you’ll need to come into the station and file a report,’ she said, addressing me.
‘But I thought I’d done that.’ The tone of my voice was querulous.
‘No, you’ve made an enquiry,’ she said.
‘Which we have logged and responded to,’ he said. ‘If you do come into the station I suggest you bring a proper photograph.’ He stepped forward. ‘Now I suggest you move your butt and get out of here.’
‘But I’ll need to get all my stuff packed.’
She shook her head. ‘No. We are going to escort you outside. You should think yourself lucky we’re not arresting you for damaging property and I’m sure if we dug deep enough there would be some kind of benefits scam, but it’s too much paperwork. We’ve had a busy morning and we just can’t be arsed. C’mon,’ she grabbed my wrist and my body followed. I jerked up off the couch like a puppet.
They bundled me between them into the hall and outside into the clean air. The woman that had photographed me earlier somehow re-acquired her IPhone and she was standing beside a clutter of empty bins speaking into it. She watched me galloping down the steps towards the old pavilion and football pitches.
The outrage in her voice carried in the wind and rain. ‘Aren’t you going to arrest him?’ she said. ‘I’m a property owner and I pay taxes.’