7 – Johnny goes to the beach

Johnny looked at the wall clock. Two minutes later he was down on the street, a small rucksack slung over one shoulder, and walking toward the van. A parking warden in a high-vis jacket was just that moment placing a ticket behind the driver-side windscreen wiper. Johnny nodded hello at him, retrieved the ticket from the windscreen, opened the driver side door, threw the ticket alongside the old copies of The Sun and Daily Record lying atop the dashboard and got in.

It had started raining by the time he reached Leith. He followed Duke Street to Leith Links and then from there to Seafield Road. He’d originally thought to go up Harry Lauder and out by the bypass but then decided to take the coastal route for old time’s sake. Black clouds had created an early three o’clock twilight and glancing down the wider streets leading to the Portobello promenade he saw sheets of rain were obscuring the coast of Fife from view. He was distracted enough not to notice the bus ahead pulling up at a stop. Breaking hard on the rain-slick tarmac the van slew to a halt just a metre short of colliding with the bus’s engine hatch. He heard the thud of loose cargo crash into the wall behind him. He cursed himself. All it would have taken was a passing police car and he’d be getting checked for bald tyres and, when he couldn’t produce documents, getting asked what was in the back.

The rain thickened as he continued down the coast through Musselburgh, Preston Pans, Cockenzie, Seton Sands and out into the countryside. The grey sea was at high tide, its surface ragged with white-tipped waves. A cold wind from the north buffeted the van and whistled through the ladder strapped to the roof rack.

When he got to the car park at Yellowcraigs he hoped to find it deserted, but two pensioners were parked there in a red Nissan Micra, sipping coffees. He turned through the car park and returned to the main road and followed it through North Berwick and out the other side toward Tyninghame beach. Twenty minutes later he reached the car park leading to the walk down through the forest to the beach. Just as he had hoped, it was deserted.

Opening the back doors he saw Bill and Davy had managed to lever themselves into sitting positions against each wheel arch. They blinked against the light he let in. He jumped in the back with them and pulled out his hand gun from a back pocket in his jeans. With his free hand he took out a knife from his jacket pocket and bent to cut through the cable ties binding their ankles. Turning them roughly on their stomachs he did the same with the ties round their wrists and then stepped backwards and down on to the ground. They worked the gags free themselves. Pushing his gun in his pocket he ordered them to get out.

Grimacing with the pain of bruises around their ankles they stepped gingerly out. There was a bitter little rainfall being whipped in every direction by an angry breeze. Johnny walked them down the path from the car park and into Link Woods. Taking the route that veered away from the ploughed fields and into the forest he stopped them after a few hundred metres and directed them into a thicket of Rhododendrons and told them to stop. Drawing his gun from his jacket pocket he had to speak out against the roar of the storm in the crowns of the half leafless trees overhead.

‘You boys. You’re gardening days are over. D’you hear?’ There came no answer from either Davy or Bill. He shouted ‘D’you hear?’ Bill, sweat glistening on his face despite the cold and his clothes half-soaked through with rain, nodded. ‘And you don’t know Mrs Callaghan, and you don’t know where she lives, and you’ll never see her again. And you’ll never speak of this to anyone. None of your little pals down at the pub, or at cash converters or the bookies. Isn’t that right?’ Bill was hugging himself against the shivers. ‘Isn’t that right!’ Bill daren’t look him in the eye. ‘Tell me yes!’ Both men murmured and nodded agreement. ‘Good. Cos you know I’ll find you if you do.’

He paused. He still had Bill’s half crushed packet of Benson and Hedges. He extracted a cigarette and put it between his lips. Casually waving his gun he told them, ‘Now boys. I want you to do me one last favour before I send you back to the van. I’m sorry I can’t come with you now. I fancy a wee walk. You’ll go alone. The keys are in the ignition. But I want you to do me one last favour. Take your shirts off, your jeans, your trackies and your underwear. We’re going to do a wash.’ They looked incredulously up at him and then at each other. ‘That’s right. You heard. Take them off!’

They undressed slowly. Their necks were red from a long summer of half-assed gardening and then from there down, save for their bruises, they were pale and soft, like white bread left out in the rain. He had them throw their clothes in a pile. While they stood, hands clasped modestly over their privates, he took out a plastic bottle of petrol from his rucksack and poured every last drop on the pile. Waiting a few seconds for the gas to rise he stood back a little and then pointing the gun at it he pulled the trigger. A small tongue of flame licked out its muzzle and the pile ignited, making a short baritone woof and sending a mushroom of black smoke and flame into the air. With the heat of the ignition still on his face Johnny turned the lighter on himself, lit his cigarette, turned on his heals and walked away.

Johnny took two hours to reach North Berwick. At the halfway point the rain had hardened and he stopped in the shelter of a cliff already deserted by the ebbing tide. He poured himself a cup of coffee from his flask. 

Where he was sitting had been a favourite spot of Anna’s. It was almost four years since they had last sat there together. They were celebrating the end of her first term teaching Philosophy of Science at the university. She had brought a single-use barbecue and they cooked sausages . Sheltered from the cold westerly sweeping down the Forth, sitting on a natural shelf of red rock, Anna had been full of chatter about her new colleagues and her students. For the first time in her career she had her own office and a chance to develop her own syllabus. There wasn’t going to be anymore taking the hit as junior faculty and lecturing at nine a.m. to two hundred first year students on Descartes Meditations or Hume’s Enquiries of Human Understanding. No more confounding humanities students with lessons in formal logic that looked like algebra. She’d be back at those coal faces if and only if a meteor should strike three doors down and take out the lowly PhD students sharing office 4:2 with the departments Xerox and coffee machines. The first week had brought her more than a new office and new responsibilities. A member of the political science department had already petitioned her to join him in the authoring of a new paper on ‘Kuhn’s theories on scientific paradigms and contemporary British politics.’ Johnny only remembered the working title of the paper because its writing quickly came to dominate their life at home – that and Anna’s relationship with her co-writer – Frank Millhouse.

Johnny lit a cigarette. The sea was shrinking quickly northward across the wide sands and the wind was gradually changing to a north westerly. It was sending gusts in to find him and the echoes of Anna’s cheerful summer chatter seemed more distant still. Packing the flask back in his rucksack he swung it over one shoulder, bent his neck against the wind and the veils of sand whipped from the dunes and resumed the walk to North Berwick. It was a measure of his tiredness and the cold that his limp was at its most pronounced.

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