By Stephen Thom
Lewis Bain slowed as he approached the final few bars, playing the last six notes rallentando. He finished his recital and stood, shuffling to the front of the stage and bowing to the audience. There was a ripple of polite applause.
It was 1947. He was twelve years old and he had just finished playing 'Ye Jacobites By Name' at the Shetland Schools Music Festival 'Gala Concert', held in Burravoe High School hall. He was particularly proud that he had played the song using a fingerpicking style, all solemn A minor and D minor arpeggios.
Students competed against one another in various age-range and instrument catergories and Bain was sure he was going to win his guitar category this year. There was only one other boy competing against him and, although he had also played 'Ye Jacobites By Name,' he had not fingerpicked it.
He had also - somewhat bizarrely - spoken the words of the song as he played, instead of singing them. Bain knew that he had been advised to do this by the teacher. The boy's voice was breaking, and he tended to lurch into cracked squeals when he attempted to sing tunes. So he'd just said the words in his wobbly tone, and strummed the guitar. Bain thought it sounded stupid.
Ye Jacobites by name
Lend an ear, lend an ear
Ye Jacobites by name
Lend an ear
When Bain looked back on this he could not remember even conceiving of the possibility of losing.
He had lost. The examiner had been paying tribute to the other boy's 'bravery' and Bain had suddenly burst into tears. It took him completely by surprise. He'd had to be guided out of the busy hall by a gentle pupil assistant, curious eyes watching the selfish/entitled/overly-competitive/overly-emotional child disappearing.
When he got home his Mum asked him how it went.
I lost, he said. He started crying again.
His Mum looked confused, then smiled, sighed and hugged him tight.
I didn't even realise it was a competition, she said.
Music was an important memory for him, despite the odd crushing and apparently inexplicable defeat. He remembered playing in the Douglas Arms and Da Wheel Bar from aged fourteen onwards; reels and jigs, a blur of fiddles, whistles, pipes, his guitar a rhythmic rush underpinning everything. Later in life he would appreciate how special this time was, and he would also be acutely aware of how much he took it for granted.
The guitar was gathering dust in his attic when he transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department in Argyll and Dunbartonshire in 1962, to complete a period of time as a Trainee Detective Constable. Ailsa came with him. She was six months pregnant when they left.
Bain was posted to the Family Protection Unit within Argyll and West Dunbartonshire Policing Division. He recalled sitting alongside social workers, interviewing mothers and children with black eyes and burst lips. At the time he considered himself a somewhat spiritual man, although he did not really know what that meant. He meditated in a slightly impatient and aimless manner and believed, loosely, that there was 'more going on' in the grand scheme of things.
Although these attitudes would give way over time to a kind of all-consuming, equally misled and ill-informed nihilism, he still recalled his time in the FPU as a harbinger of things to come. A black mirror, a window to the future.
His own drinking was creeping up insidiously. He had always drank to get drunk. But the times and opportunities were allocated and compartmentalised as he worked and moved through the ranks.
He was bright and sharp. He built his knowledge up and gained his grounding on patrol. He watched his experienced colleagues. Mannerisms. Tics. Methods. Later, on the mainland, he assisted with crime scene cordons, conducted house-to-house enquiries; he assisted with arrests and search operations run by senior detectives.
At the weekends he drank. Often he drank alone, and this worried him. Initially Ailsa drank with him, and it was a honeymoon period, an alcohol-lubricated fling. In years to come, and especially after Ross was born, he would hide bottles. He hid them in cisterns. Behind sofas. In bushes by the house. He would take long walks. Slug mouthwash on the way home.
In hindsight it was remarkable he got eleven more years from Ailsa. Eleven years with Ross.
December 1973. The old house at Atlaness, Shetland. He was pissing on the floor in the corner of the bedroom. The darkness swam around him. The air seemed to have a rancid, gummy texture. Ailsa was banging on the door, screaming his name.
Zipping up, he staggered over and wrestled with the sofa wedged against the door. It was a siege. It was a siege and it had been that way for months. Ross was at Ailsa's parents until it was resolved.
The sofa slid back, and a knife of hall light escaped through the door crack as she tried to force an opening.
'Are you fucking pissing? Are you fucking pissing in there?'
He stooped down low, swigging from a can. The wash simultaneously muddied and infused him with power. He clattered against the wall, spying a freeze-frame of her frazzled hair and dark eyes.
'Fucking. Fucking, you just - you, fuck your - you just...'
He couldn't make the words trim, but his fingers found an energetic, stabbing rhythm. Her eyes flared and she leaned her weight against the door, bashing her shoulder against it.
'Get out! Get the fuck out!'
'You - you fucking...'
The sofa toppled and Bain, caught off guard, went down with it. The back of his head cracked against the skirting board. The can rolled from his spasming fingertips to join the clinking hordes littered around. His chin lolled into his chest. Somewhere far away he could hear her volleying about the room, screaming, but he didn't care. A velvet drape, pockmarked with flashing red icons, fluttered in his line of vision, and he felt quite decisively that he didn't care about anything.
She left the next day. The family section of his life collapsed and fell into the same bracket as the musical section. It was something he experienced but could not keep. Time would continue to prove he could not keep anything close to him.
It became history and like all history it became mythologised. He relived these years constantly in his head, regressing into them, and soon the only experiences he was having outside of work were delusional projections, bitter fantasies encouraged and fuelled by liquor and amphetamines.
Within these delusions those precious times and memories continued, except that he was healthy, happy and kind. Surrounded with love. Stripped of his vices, mistakes and the lingering concern that there was something truly wrong with him. Something evil within him.
The strongest new memories were the endless nights, propped up on his pillow on the single bed, crying over his gear tray.
He was placed on long-term sick leave. Chief Inspector Duncan Graham, a stout man with heavy jowls and a weary disposition, told him he was on a fucking shoogly peg.
Nevertheless, he visited Bain in the Ronas Ward - the rehab ward - at the Gilbert Bain Hospital, and in that little white room he called him 'pal' and told him how he'd found himself going to the pub in the afternoons when his first marriage was breaking down. Having four or five pints before dinner. Then eight or nine. He'd never been that fussed about drink before. Took a while to shift the habit. Get the monkey off his shoulder.
Bain was fuzzy with the diazepam, and at the time he was even a little uncertain why Graham was telling him this, but in the future he would remember it often. It stuck with his as a moment of understanding and recognition during a period - and, truth be told, an adult life - generally deprived of such interaction.
When he returned to work they stuck him behind a desk. It took months of prompt clock-in times, filing, immaculately-typed reports and false cheer to get shot of that. He'd burn through the week and schedule his binges for Friday and Saturday nights. Kept it exclusively in-house. Sweat it out on Sunday and he had the shady veneer of fresh-and-ready in time for Monday morning.
The years ticked by in this cycle and he entered some kind of new stage. He functioned. It was manageable and oddly precise, but it was also lonely and beholden to the past, and he was never able to shake the feeling that everything could collapse again at any given point.
He carried himself with an increasingly disinterested demeanour. Searched for flaws in everything. Observed anything new or out of the ordinary with disdain and suspicion. In this way he felt - almost physically - a blanket forming. It was both comforting and restrictive, and at its most prominent it was leaden with the feeling of impending doom.
Beneath this weight he walked and worked and drank and existed because he did not know what else to do.