★ ★ ★ ★
‘A Job for Life’
It’s frosty day in January. Ben Wyvis lies to the North like the ghost of a great white whale. I watch my step crossing the suspension footbridge over the river. I don’t want an accident on today of all days. What with the ice and all, and the bridge has a habit of swinging when there’s a few folk on it. It’s ‘rush hour’, so they’re streaming across into the town.
I’m heading against the flow of course, to the ‘office’. It stands on the riverside opposite the town, the walls a pink pebbledash, and the windows masked with vertical blinds. Out front there’s a big space for the hearses to turn and the nearest and dearest to park. We call it the office, but most of the work doesn’t happen in an office you’ll understand. Though there’s plenty of paperwork. I was doing a lot of that in the last few years. ‘Dispatch’, you might say.
Thirty years! That’s what it added up to, and this my last day.
I started in this line a few years after leaving the High School. I got a couple of Highers, and was pretty good at maths, so at first I was in the Town House: junior clerk in the cash office. No computers in them days. That’s where I met the man that would soon be my boss. He was the Provost—that’s what the English call a ‘mayor’—in the days when Inverness still had its own Council. Now it’s just a bit of Highland Regional Council. Who would want to be the Provost of Tesco Town, any road?
Provost John Matheson, or ‘Coffin John’, as they called him, on account of him being head honcho in the biggest undertaking business in the north. I preferred to call him ‘Pumblechook’, but not to his face, like. He had plump rosy cheeks, like a fired-up cockerel. Chook, chook, chookie. Maybe he had on a dab of the rouge that he used on the stiffs to give himself a bit of colour, or more like it was just the dramming down at the Station Hotel. Pumblechook would strut his stuff in the lounge bar with his fellow Rotarians, Masons, Round Tablers and whatever other rolled-up-trouser scam they connived at to keep the silver rolling into their tills. Me, I took my drink at the Gellions bar back then, before I migrated to Clachnaharry Inn when I moved up the hill.
One day Pumblechook comes into the Town House cash office to collect his Provostorial expenses. ‘You look like a bright lad’, says he. ‘You’re Jimmy Fraser the joiner’s boy, are you no’?’
‘Yes, Sir. Davie’, I says.
‘Your Dad did some good work for my father when he was a younger man. Ay, a good man your father. Passed on, has he not? Yes, yes I remember; walnut with nickel handles. Well now,’ says he, his head cocked to one side, stroking his chin with the one hand, the thumb of the other hooked into his gold watch chain. ‘I have a vacancy for a trainee—not a joiner you understand—but the other side of the trade.’
‘I’m not sure that that would suit me, sir’, I say.
‘Nonsense, you’ll do far better in my business than stuck here in the Town House’.
It turned out he was right—in ways that he would never understand. I had a think about the offer, and a couple of days later handed in my notice to the Council. I took myself off to Matheson’s new parlour in North Church Street.
Not that the old skinflint ever paid me much, but it was enough to get by. After a few years I had enough to buy a house up at Scorguie, and I could watch the Kessock Bridge being built from the back garden. I would walk the dogs up onto the old fort on Craig Phadraig. Went as far back as the Iron Age, it did.
Did I tell you that I used to go to Clachnaharry? Yes I think I did. Yes. Well that’s where I met Carmen. It was the quiz night and the teams were mixed up, a kind of circulation quiz, and we got chatting and that. No, it was not what you think—she was about twenty years younger than me, and educated, you know. Good enough looking, all the same. Over a few months we kind of got to know each other. Every Tuesday we’d find ourselves on a team together. I was good at the football, and the sixties pop music: Beatles, Stones and that. She did the science questions. Stands to reason, her being a bio-chemist. Yes, a bio-chemist. Worked up in that new place by the hospital: Vitalforce. ‘Life science’ they called it. She was well-qualified—born in Columbia and a doctorate from UCLA. Mum and Dad still in San Diego, brother in the military, and a sister…Well, I’ll come to the sister later.
But we got on well; you know you sometimes hit it off with someone unusual? She always had just the one drink. ‘A teeny Peenot Greegio’, she would say, in that accent. Insisted on paying for it herself. Every time—never let me buy her one.
Then one night she said something to me about a shortage, and I heard the word ‘tissue’. Well it’s that noisy in the bar, and my hearing’s not so good, I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out some Kleenex. I always carry a wee packet, 10 of them for 99p in Lidl—can’t go wrong. Well! She nearly wet herself laughing.
‘Tissue’, says she, ‘not tissues. There’s a world shortage of tissue for my research. It costs a fortune, and you can never be sure of the provenance. Not that they’re so fussed up about that in some countries.’
‘Fussed’, I said. ‘You don’t say “fussed up”’. She liked me to help her with her English sometimes. We speak the best English in the world in Inverness. That’s a true fact.
‘Provenance’—that’s the thing they’re always interested in on the Antiques Road Show. You know, where it’s been, what’s it’s background. Like my gran would say when our Jean would bring home a new boyfriend: ‘Who’s he of?’ That’s provenance.
So Carmen needed tissue. Well, I thought, I’ve got plenty of that passing through my hands day in, day out. But I said nothing.
Next week she didn’t show. Nor the next neither. When she came back, she looked pretty rough. ‘What’s up amigo?’ I asked her. Turns out her sister, the one I mentioned before, had been kidnapped. Straight up. She was down in Mexico working in some school and bandits came and kidnapped her, right in front of a class of six-year-olds. Three hundred thousand dollars ransom, that’s what they wanted. Reckoned if she was American she must be good for it. Well, Carmen’s Mum and Dad didn’t have that kind of dough, and neither did Carmen. She had been talking to the Yankee diplomats and the FBI for the last couple of weeks, but there seemed to be no chance of getting her back without stumping up.
Carmen took out a mortgage on her house—a second one, you understand, and with some money from the bank and rellies stateside, managed to scrape together 250,000 dollars. Her cousin negotiated with the kidnappers and they released Adriana, that’s the sister’s name. So Carmen goes off home to see her sister and the family, but she needs to come back to work pretty quick since she’d had a lot of time off already.
What a state she was in when she came back. She had to pay back all that money, like, and that would take a thousand years, even on her salary.
That’s when I came up with the idea.
I’m not sure if I mentioned that I’m a bit of an angler—fly fishing: trout mainly. I’ve got a season ticket on a few lochs round about—up Beauly way and behind the Strath, Anyway, I do pretty well in the season, and I take them. I’ve no time for this catch and release.
But there are too many for me on my own. I freeze some, but you get tired of it. So, I got myself a wee smoker. It’s grand. People really loved the smoked trout, so I started buying fish fresh from the supermarket—at five o’clock on a Saturday, like, you can get what’s left for next to nothing, and smoking that up.
Then I had a brainwave—I bought a wee machine off Amazon—a Vacupack. Nothing fantoosh—it only cost a couple of hundred quid but it does the job, sealed the trout up right professional, and I sold the trout on eBay. Not a huge lot, but enough.
* * *
At first Carmen didn’t like the idea. Not one bit. But I worked on her. I told her about the kit. ‘Who’s going to suffer?’ I said. ‘You made a sacrifice for your sister, and you wouldn’t be doing it for personal gain, just to re-instate what was rightfully yours.’
‘But no proper lab would take the product without certification’, she said.
‘There must be places where they’re not so “fussed up”’, I said. She laughed. ‘And you travel- you know the places to go.’
‘But it’s unethical, totally unethical,’ she said.
Then I explained how I wouldn’t take any money at first, just my outlays—the vacuum bags and something towards my electric bills. Once she had paid off her debt, then I’d maybe start taking something for my trouble. To be honest I wasn’t really interested in the money for myself then, I just wanted to help her. So she thought about it for a couple of weeks and then she agreed. She would Skype some of her old contacts, and she had a few trips overseas coming up.
My end of the work was easy. I almost always worked alone, and it wasn’t difficult to take something from where no one would see it. Who’s going to look anyway? I always brought my sandwiches in a click-box with for lunch and that was perfect for getting the merchandise back out of the parlour.
Business started to boom. The clinics and labs that Carmen supplied couldn’t get enough. Of course the merchandise was always fresh. I saw to that. It was a perfect partnership. I took the samples and packed them up using the vacuum packer, I called it the ‘sooky machine’. She looked after the distribution and the payments. After three years Carmen’s debt was paid off. She wanted to stop then, but I reminded her of our arrangement. Now it was my turn. I gave her half the income. I’m not a greedy man.
So, another four years and I was building up a bit of a nest egg. Enough to think about early retirement. Enough to allow me to go into Willie Matheson’s office unannounced (that’s Pumblechook’s son, by the way), and hand in my notice. Time to call it a day. It would mean the end of our wee business of course. I had to tell Carmen too.
What happened next came as a complete surprise to me. I texted Carmen and asked if we could meet—we avoided meeting in public since we started the enterprise. I said, the usual place out near Loch Ness up an old forestry track. We sheltered under a tree out of the rain. When I told her I was planning to retire, she went bananas. She was used to the money, see. Why did I need to retire? Did I think that I could just pack it in whenever I liked? You should have heard her. Swearing an’ all in Spanish, hitting me in the face, screaming. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, its someone shouting. The noise, you see, it gets right into me.
I admit, it all got a bit out of hand. I’m quite strong you see; her neck—well it was so thin. A lot weaker than you’d think. Just a ‘click’, and she was gone. There wouldn’t even be a bruise.
I’m used to dead people, like, but this was different. Warm and soft, she was. Made me feel a bit queasy, to be honest. I’m not proud of what happened, but she brought it on herself. I never could stand greedy people.
I rolled her down into the pool above the waterfall and watched her spin around once. Then she slipped over, easy.
* * *
So that’s how I’m crossing the Ness bridge, a couple of weeks after that day in the drizzly forest. Going to my last day in the office.
Willie followed me into the changing room. ‘One last job’ he said. ‘A bit of a special one, I hope you don’t mind. Police business—the lassie that fell in the river up in the forest.
‘Oh aye,’ I said. ‘Terrible business.’
‘Post Mortem’s done,’ said Willie, ‘so it will be poked around a bit. Family coming from overseas. The name is Ramirez.’ He scrolled down his spreadsheet…‘Carmen Ramirez. You ok with this, on your last day?’
‘No problem’, I told him, pulling on my latex gloves. ‘After all, I’m a professional.’
Don Taylor lives in Central Scotland but spends much of his time in the Highlands. He is retired from a career in theatre management/producing, and latterly in public cultural policy and funding. His work has been published in print and online anthologies in the UK and the US.