I’m Donald Kinnaird. I live across the corridor. I just wanted to say hello.”
“Okay. You’ve said hello.”
“Ye seem to be a wee bit up tight. It’s not bad here, ye ken. I’ve been in a hell of a lot worse places than here. Could a’ no come in an’ talk to ye?”
He came in and perched on the edge of the small single bed. “De ye have a name then?”
“Well, it’s good to meet ye, Sam, even if you’re not at you’re best just at the minute. Sure a’ ken it’s no great shakes here, but if ye’d a slept under as many railway arches an’ doing as many back alleys as I have ye’d appreciate it. Ah ken ye’ve just moved in. Where were ye before this, then?”
Samuel didn’t answer at once but took a bottle from the bedside cabinet and hunted around for two glasses. His visitor gestured that he didn’t want a drink. “That’s good a ye’, Sam, but ye ken that’s where I was before I come here, and I didn’t want go back.”
“You want to know where I was before here? I was in my own house: a very nice one, five bedrooms, not a bad neighbourhood, big garden…” He poured a shot of whiskey for himself and sipped it.
“Was it too much for ye, like? The upkeep an’ aw’ that?”
“Life was too much for me. That’s what was too much.”
“Life was too much? For a man in his own grand house with his own grand garden?” Donald thought about what the other had said for a few moments. “Ye didn’t mean… that ye tried to end your life, do you?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’m glad to hear it. It’s not a nice place to be, Donald. Not nice at all.” He took another sip from his glass.
“Ye must a’ had a reason?”
“You know it’s strange, I’ve had all these counsellors and social workers and God-knows-what, but you’re the first person who’s asked me that straightforward question. I suppose they thought they didn’t need to ask. They had a label for me, and that was all they wanted. Why don’t you sit on the other chair?” Donald did as his host suggested. “Yes, I had a reason. I’ve still got a reason. But I’ve thought about it a lot since… it would just be an empty gesture. It wouldn’t change anything. Wouldn’t make anything better. Whatever chance I might have… to put things right, only exists while I’m still alive. I may as well see it out – whatever time is left for me.”
Donald looked genuinely concerned. Even a little shocked. “Have ye no got family then?”
“Nobody who would give me a second thought.”
“My missus died a long time ago. Cancer of the colon. They could probably treat it if she was alive now. I’m a bit of a loner, Donald. Have been for a long time. I’ve got used to my own company. It isn’t so bad. What’s your story then?”
“Ouch, I was a bit of a tear away when I was a lad. Got a bit too fond a’ the drink. I’m okay now though. Aw’ that’s behind me. Harmless, Sam. Nothing’ much to say about me anymore.”
“Harmless. Yes, I’m afraid I wasn’t harmless. I did rather a lot of harm.”
“What’s done is done, Sam. Aw’ in the past. That’s one thing ye get in here. A new start. You an’ me both. We’re not died yet, Sam!”
“No, I suppose we aren’t.” He paused. “I feel like a little walk in the grounds. Would you like to come with me?”
Samuel was a better walker than Donald. His back was straight and his stride regular and confident. Donald’s legs were shorter and his progress clumsy, as though his shoes didn’t quite fit. “Can you slow down a wee tad, Sam? I cannot keep up with ye’.”
“Sorry. Let’s sit down at the top of the rise. There’s a bench.”
Donald lowered himself heavily by Samuel’s side. “I lost a couple a’ toes one winter,” he explained. “Got a wee bit drunk an’ fell asleep in the frost.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t think…”
“That’s fine. Not a problem. I’m well used to it.”
For a few moments they admired the great sweep of farmland they could see from this vantage point; the valley with the tree-lined stream, the village in the distance with the church and the little white houses huddled around it. Samuel broke the silence. “My family comes from around here, you know. My father and three of my grandparents are buried in that churchyard. My father owned quite a lot of land. It was sold off when he died. We were all well provided for. I’m guessing that your background… was a little different?”
“Aye. I think you could say it was a little different.”
“It doesn’t mean a thing now of course. The other brothers are still quite comfortably off – but my share is long gone. I was the youngest. The prodigal son. But I never went back to feast on that fatted calf.” He became silent.
Donald continued to watch him, as though waiting for him to go on. “I was wondering’,” he said at last, “if ye wanted to tell me about the bad thing that ye say ye done?”
“Oh, it’s very ordinary. Very unexciting. I used to run a business, investing other people’s money. For a long time, I was lucky. All my investments came up trumps. I paid people very good dividends. Then my luck ran out. Several of my biggest speculations came a cropper. I didn’t tell anybody because it would have shaken confidence in my company. I started paying dividends out of capital, investing money that I didn’t have, throwing good money after bad. Needless to say, it all came tumbling down around my ears.
“It didn’t feel real at first. Like losing a game of monopoly. All just symbols, figures on paper. But pretty soon I discovered that it wasn’t just figures on paper. For quite a lot of my clients, it was all that they had. People that I had a relationship with, people I’d known for years, who trusted me. I’d lied to them, misled them, cheated them. Financial collapse is nothing new, it’s happened on a national and even a world scale many times. But this wasn’t anybody else’s fault. This was me. My judgement, my dishonesty, my incompetence. That’s pretty hard to live with, when your financial ability is the only thing about yourself that you take a pride in. There simply wasn’t anything else to me. Nothing else I could do. I couldn’t cook a meal, drive a car, sew on a button, mend a fuse, dig the garden – other people had done everything for me, all my life. I was a one-trick-pony, completely and totally. And I couldn’t get the trick to work anymore.
“And worst of all, I suppose, was the hatred, the vindictiveness of other people. Justified, perhaps, but horrible nevertheless. Who’s going to feel sorry for a greedy and dishonest hedge fund operator who’s tumbled down from a standard of living that most people can’t even imagine and come to rest in the gutter?”
“Forgive me, Donald. I didn’t mean to be offensive. Of course this isn’t the gutter. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Ach, it’s aw’ right. Ye couldn’t offend me if ye tried. It’s sort of ironic though, isn’t it? I robbed folk by breaking’ into their houses an’ takin’ their things. You robbed them by tricking’ them out a’ their money. An’ where did it get the both of us? This place, just across the corridor from one another. Same hoods, same floor, same scram.”
“Maybe that’s as it should be. Doesn’t it bother you, though? Don’t you find yourself wishing that there was some way you could give just a tiny bit back?”
“Ah gave them about twelve years a’ ma life in the big house. That’ll have to dare them.”
“You know what I mean. Something that’ll make a difference. Something worthwhile.”
“Ouch aye. Thon’s a good idea. Am only seventy-two, ah think I’ll go to Oxford University an’ become a brain surgeon – maybe find a cure for cancer in ma spare time while I am about it.”
Samuel looked at his companion. “You’re wrong, you know. You think you have nothing to offer and you’re quite wrong. What you’ve got to offer is in there.” He pointed at Donald’s head. “It’s a lifetime of experience. Everything that’s happened to you, since your earliest memory. Your family, your school, the crimes, the prisons, living rough, the drinking… don’t you think all that counts for something?”
Daniel narrowed his eyes and considered. “Aye, ah could tell you a story or two if that’s what ye mean. No question.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Why don’t I what? Tell stories?”
“Write them down. The story of your life. All the things that have gone wrong – or right. The good breaks and the bad ones. The mistakes and their consequences. The street life, the prison life. The opportunities that came along that you didn’t take – I’m sure there were some. Everything, from start to finish – well, everything up to now. It isn’t finished yet, is it?”
Donald smiled. “You’re taking the pause.”
“I swear to God I’m not. The more I think about it the more right it sounds. Glasgow, was it?” Donald nodded. “The life of one of Glasgow’s undistinguished sons, cradle to the rest-home, nothing held back, straight from the heart. It could be a best-seller. You could be the next Irvine Welsh. A different generation, of course, not the trendy young drugs set, but their parents and grandparents. The war babies, the ones who left school and started wandering the streets before there was a Welfare State. A new angle, even if the basic story isn’t all that different.”
“Ouch aye. Always getting’ mistaken for a famous author I am. Always in the library, studying’ something’. A born man o’ letters.”
“You could do it if you wanted to. I could help you. It’s not as if either of us have any pressing engagements, is it?”
“I’ve never read a book in my life, never mind writing’ one.”
“That doesn’t matter. It’s the same as writing anything. Or talking. It’s just telling people your story…”
“Shite! De a have to spell it out for ye? I cannot read, man. I cannot write. I never learned. Now, will ye stop talking bullshit?”
“You can’t read? But so what? I can’t cook, does that mean I can’t eat? Does it mean I can’t tell a good meal from a bad one? Reading is a trivial skill. I’ll teach it to you some time when we’re not busy. First we’ve got work to do. A book to write. I can be your secretary, and your editor…”
“You are talking’ bullshit man. You are embarrassing me.
“Humour me. Please. Just for a little while. Imagine you’re writing your book.”
“For Christ’s sake, Sam. Who’s going to read if, even if I could write it?”
“I’m no expert but I think people will read it. Maybe only a few, I don’t know. But just think about it. Suppose just one teenager in one slum reads it and says to himself: ‘That’s not the life for me’? Suppose it rescues just one soul. Wouldn’t that be something worth doing? Wouldn’t that be giving a little bit back? For both of us?”
“You are out of here, man!”
“Just go along with me. Humour me, like I said. This is your story. The beginning. How is it going to begin? Give me the opening words.”
Donald smiled and shook his head in a gesture of exasperation. “Okay then. I’ll give ye the opening words: My name’s Donald Kinnaird. I’m an ignorant, sick, old – penniless, oh aye, mustn’t leave out penniless – ex-con from the back streets o’ Glasgow, living’ in a posh old folks’ have been in Surrey, courtesy o’ the English taxpayer. Who the fuck would want to listen to anything I have to say?”
Sam stared at him in disbelief. “And you say you’re not a writer? That’s brilliant. I’m bowled over. That’s the opening of a book that I would have to read. Wouldn’t be able to close until I knew what came next. You’re a genius, Donald. Let’s get back to the house quickly so that I can write it down.”
“I’m telling’ ye, man.
You are out of here.”
Samuel helped him to his feet and ushered him back down the path. “While we’re walking you can be thinking about what comes next.”
Donald was quiet for a few moments and then went on…
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