Authors: Doug Johnstone
Tags: #crime fiction
Mark struggled to keep himself steady. Sharp gusts of wind were nudging his camera all over the place and the spray coming off the sea was probably eating away at the lens casing. He should change to a longer lens for this shot but he didn’t want to risk getting salt into the electronics.
He looked out to sea. Rough grey swells were chopping up the firth, where a coastguard speedboat was zipping and turning, trying to guide the whales towards open water. Black fins darted and dipped, too many to count properly, but at least forty. The pilot whales circled and crossed each other in a strange movement that might’ve been mesmerising if Mark wasn’t on a deadline.
He flicked back through the shots he’d already taken. There were a few that the paper could use, but he wanted something better. He checked his watch. Five minutes to deadline but he probably had a bit longer, the picture desk was always hustling him.
He adjusted the feet of the tripod in the sand. A surge of wind made him spread his weight to steady himself and the equipment. Up to 70 mph they said on the news this morning, and this was supposed to be spring, almost summer.
He looked through the viewfinder. He needed to get a picture of the whales spyhopping, that was the money shot. He’d listened to a marine biologist being interviewed on the beach earlier. Apparently it was very common behaviour for pilot whales. Sticking their heads above the water like meerkats and having a nosy around, especially at nearby boats. He could do with one of them taking a peek right now. But all he could see was a mess of fins rising and sinking, the occasional tail flick, but nothing spectacular, nothing that would make the front page.
The biologist had said the potential stranding might have to do with the wind somehow messing with their navigation. Either that or pollutants, or magnetic fields, or sonar. The guy had no clue, basically. One thing he did say was that pilot whales were always doing this, and the strong social bond meant if one beached, they all did. Mass suicide.
He began uploading the shots to the picture desk through his phone, his eye back to the viewfinder, legs spread and feet planted in the sand.
‘Come on, spyhop, you sods.’
Nothing. It was as if the whales didn’t want to be front-page news. He clicked away anyway, getting the best action shots he could. Got a well-framed picture of the coastguard boat with a guy at the prow and a couple of dorsal fins nearby, spray from the waves adding depth. He took a couple of quick shots of a seagull hovering above an emerging back. But no spyhopping.
The pictures had uploaded. He raised his head to look around. Worth getting a few background snaps, you never know.
A small group of people hugged the shoreline of Portobello beach, huddled in against the ferocious wind, all peering at the whales a hundred feet out to sea. Sand lifted off the surface of the beach and swirled into everyone’s faces. Mark dreaded to think what it was doing to his Canon. He took a few pics of the crowd, they might get used if the story ran long, but probably not. He was on shift anyway so it didn’t matter, he got paid his pittance either way, but it was always nice to see your work in print, even if it was only the
Edinburgh Evening Standard
A couple of people in the crowd were pointing at the firth. He turned to see a whale with its whole head clearly out the water looking straight at the shore. He spun the camera back and snapped, but by the time he got it focused the whale had disappeared back into the churning wash.
His phone went. It would be Fletcher on the picture desk getting on his back for better shots. He kept his eye at the viewfinder and his finger on the shutter release as he answered the phone.
‘That’s all I’ve managed to get so far,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry?’ It was a woman’s voice.
He straightened up. ‘Hello?’
‘Is that Mr Douglas?’
His stomach lurched. ‘Yeah, that’s right. What is it, is Nathan OK?’
‘He’s fine. This is Mrs Hignet from the office at Towerbank. It’s just to say that no one has come to pick Nathan up from school, that’s all, and we were wondering if there was a problem of some kind.’
‘I’m sorry, my wife was supposed to pick him up today, I’m working.’
A shudder of wind rocked him as he gazed out to sea.
‘I see. Well, Nathan’s mum hasn’t shown up,’ Hignet said. ‘Could you come and get him, please? This sort of thing isn’t really acceptable, you know.’
‘Of course.’ Mark looked at his watch. His deadline was past now anyway. He turned and looked along Porty Prom. He could see the school from here, it wouldn’t take long to pack up and hoof it over, ten minutes tops. ‘I’ll come and get him straight away. I’ll be there in five minutes.’
‘Very good.’ Hignet sounded like a real old battleaxe. ‘But Mr Douglas, please don’t let this happen again.’
Mark raised his eyebrows but kept his voice level. ‘Of course not. Sorry.’
He hung up and began packing his gear away, trying to make sure there was no sand anywhere. Pointless in this wind. Camera into the case, lenses packed away, tripod folded and telescoped.
As he crouched over the camera case, he spotted something. Amongst the scattering of stones and shells on the sand there was a small piece of something opaque. Sea glass. He picked it up and stroked the edge of it with his finger. It was the size of a fifty-pence piece and pear-shaped, light blue-green, one of the more common colours. Not that sea glass was common on this beach. Nathan’s collection only ran to five pieces so far, that was in six years of beach walking. Mark turned it in his hand, feeling the smoothness against his skin, the glass tumbled and worn by sand and waves, wearing its experience on its surface for all to see. This would make a nice addition to the collection, and Mark smiled at the thought. He slipped the glass into his pocket.
He heard a noise from the small crowd at the water’s edge and looked up. They were pointing at the sea again. He sighed and turned. Two pilot whales, heads held stationary above the waves, looking inquisitively around. Front-page material. Shit.
He got his phone out and made a call. Straight on to voicemail. Maybe she was in the car on her way to school. Stuck in tramworks traffic, most likely.
‘Hey, honey, it’s me. Where are you? I just got a call from the school saying you haven’t picked up Nathan. I’m working at the beach anyway snapping these whales, so I’ll head along the prom to get him, OK? See you back at the house.’
He began the heavy trudge through the sand up to the prom, heading for Towerbank, lugging all his gear like a packhorse.
Towerbank was a crumbly Victorian block with clanky plumbing, poky windows and not enough rooms. Mark headed for Nathan’s classroom, hoping he might still be in there with Miss Kennedy. Better to face her than the old matrons in the office. He passed a large mural on the way to 2B, all about the wonders of the sea. Maybe they’d be painting in dozens of beached pilot whales soon.
He knocked on the door and went in. Miss Kennedy was sitting with a pile of marking, Nathan clicking the mouse at a computer. The forgotten son with the irresponsible parents.
Miss Kennedy looked up. She always made Mark feel so old. Late twenties, black bob, short skirt, cute smile. Jesus. He tried to remember his own primary teachers, pictured a string of ancient, stocky madams with industrial bosoms.
‘I’m really sorry,’ he said.
Miss Kennedy gave a sparkly laugh. ‘No problem.’ She turned to Nathan. ‘We’ve just been chilling out, haven’t we?’
Nathan kept his eyes on the computer screen and his hand on the mouse.
‘Yeah,’ he said.
Mark looked at him and felt all the usual parental craziness in a brief rush – pride, worry, love, heartbreak and pain. He went over and tousled the boy’s mess of fair hair. Nathan’s skin was pallid against the garish red uniform, his green eyes so much like Lauren’s. He was playing a platform game to do with healthy eating, collecting fruit and dodging burgers and sweets.
‘Come on, Big Guy, let’s go home,’ Mark said. ‘Get out Miss Kennedy’s hair.’
‘Awww,’ Nathan said, but he dragged himself from the computer willingly enough.
Mark ushered him towards the door and turned back. ‘I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again.’
Miss Kennedy waved this away.
‘My wife was supposed to pick him up, I don’t know where she’s got to.’
Outside the door, Mark helped Nathan on with his coat, zipping it up for him to save time. ‘It’s blowing a gale out there.’
‘Where’s Mummy?’ Nathan said.
Mark got out his phone and called again. Voicemail. He didn’t leave a message.
Mark held the school door open and they were hit by a wall of wind and noise.
‘What is it, Big Guy?’
‘Can I play on my DS when we get home?’
Mark braced himself for heading into the storm.
They couldn’t speak on the walk home, the wind whipping words away from their mouths when they tried. Nathan was having trouble even walking into the strongest gusts. This was ridiculous.
Mark looked at the sea. The whales were closer to the shore than before, bad news for them. The crowd had partly dispersed, no doubt fed up with the conditions out there.
Mark tapped Nathan on the shoulder and pointed at the whales. Nathan nodded and smiled. The whales were big news at school with the kids.
Mark and Nathan struggled round the bandstand and up Marlborough Street, past the detached houses to the flats at the top. Number 12, red door. Mark looked for Lauren’s car, but it wasn’t there. He got his keys out and opened the door. The silence in the stairwell was shocking after the roar of the wind.
Six o’clock and still no sign of her.
He’d lost count of the number of times he’d called her phone. Never anything. He’d phoned the Caledonia Dreaming office, no answer either on her direct line or at reception, but they were terrible at answering that thing. Then there was no point after 5 p.m. because they always closed on the dot.
He’d called the picture desk at the
, got another shutter-monkey to cover his shift. Fletcher didn’t like it, but Mark had got some decent shots of the whale pod after all, so he was cut a little slack. Last thing he needed was to lose the gig at the paper, it was just about the only steady money he had coming in these days.
He got sausages, chips and beans on the table for him and Nathan and kept Lauren’s warming in the oven. Your dinner is in the dog, and all that. She’d be in the door any minute. He would be cross at first that she hadn’t called, that she’d left him in the lurch, but that would quickly dissipate into the usual comfortable family routine.
But something clawed at him. He flicked up the scan picture on his phone. He couldn’t really make anything out, despite what the midwife and Lauren had said they could see. The baby supposedly had a spine and head already, fingers and toes, but all he could see was a swirl of white noise. It didn’t seem real to him yet.
He couldn’t help thinking about the last time. The depression after Nathan was born. The sense of alienation, something badly wrong. Then the disappearance. For ten days, right when he and Nathan had needed her most. The ten longest days in the history of the universe. Days spent at his wits’ end, struggling with nappies, sterilisers, crying, sleepless nights, all piled on top of panic and worry, stress upon stress upon stress.
Then she reappeared, Mark furious and confused, mixed with relief that he didn’t have to cope alone any more. Lauren was contrite but still desperate, almost suicidal at times, like a cornered beast. She never said where she’d been and Mark was too scared to ask. He didn’t leave her alone with Nathan for two months after that. Horrible thoughts crept into his mind. Lauren went to counselling, struggled for months to bond with Nathan. Struggled for longer to reconnect with Mark. She refused drugs, distraught at the thought of her personality being altered by chemistry. It had all been such a battle, a sense of being battered by a storm, but they’d clung on and after eighteen months things had returned to something like an even keel.
That was all six years ago. But she was pregnant again, with a little girl this time. Maybe it was all coming back.
He tried to calm his breathing as he looked at the kitchen clock. The creeping second hand mocked him.
He turned to Nathan, who was stacking chips on his fork. Not exactly a healthy one today, but sod it, he couldn’t think clearly enough to cook anything proper.
‘So how was school today?’
This conversation so familiar, like an anchor.
‘What did you do?’
It was like a script, a game they played together.
‘So you just sat there all day with Miss Kennedy doing nothing at all whatsoever?’ Mark was hamming it up.
‘Yes.’ Nathan smiled, a smudge of bean sauce on his chin.
‘OK, name me three things.’
Nathan did an exaggerated move, finger to cheek, head tilted, eyes upwards. Thinking boy.
‘We did maths.’
‘What kind of maths?’
‘So what’s double a million?’
That smile again. Just like Lauren’s.
‘That’s easy,’ Nathan said, rolling the words around and stretching them out. ‘Two million.’
‘What’s double a billion?’
Nathan shook his head and sighed. Raised his eyebrows. ‘Two billion.’
‘OK, what’s double infinity?’
‘Infinity.’ He wasn’t to be fooled.
Infinity was a thing at the moment, like Lego
and questions about death. The phases kids go through, like snakes shedding skins.
Super Mario Brothers
already far behind,
Bob the Builder
In the Night Garden
before that. Mark knew more about this little person than anyone would ever know about anyone else ever. But that would soon end, once the boy learned to hold secrets and keep stuff to himself.
He was in the top group for maths. He got that from Lauren who handled all the bills, she’d always been good with numbers. Top group for reading too, another thing he got from her. He struggled with his writing, though, which was probably Mark’s legacy.
Not that it worked like that, of course. Mark could see from day one that Nathan was his own person with his own personality. Before they’d had him, Mark had presumed kids were empty vessels, ready to be filled in by the parents. How wrong could you be. Nature over nurture, easy. All you could do was try to stop them killing themselves and hope they didn’t turn into crackheads or hookers. A lifetime of worry lay ahead. The joy of parenthood.
Nathan finished his sausages and Mark cleared the plates away.
‘OK, second thing you did at school.’
This was where they read a story then answered questions at the end, see if they’d understood it. Mark had read one that Nathan brought home, a thing about a mouse saving a lion from hunters after the lion had been nice to him. Pretty clunky, but a solid enough moral for P2s. Nathan seemed to like it anyway.
‘Did you get all the answers?’
‘It’s easy, Daddy, the answers are always in the story.’
Mark smiled as he brought over a bowl of strawberries and yoghurt.
‘All right, one last thing?’
‘Of course, Tuesday. What did you play?’
A fancy game of tig. Mark always worried about the physical side of things. Nathan was the youngest in the class, there were kids a full head taller than him, much bulkier too. But he was fast, always running everywhere. He just didn’t care for the competitive element of sport. Like everything else, Mark wondered how that would translate into adulthood.
‘Daddy, were you taking pictures of the whales earlier?’
‘Yeah, I was.’
‘Cool. Were any of them spyhopping?’
Mark smiled. ‘How do you know about spyhopping?’
‘Miss Kennedy told us all about it.’
‘Yes, they were spyhopping, but I didn’t get any pictures of it.’
‘That’s a shame. Will your pictures still be in the newspaper?’
‘I think so. We’ll see tomorrow.’
Nathan looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘Miss Kennedy says the whales might die.’
‘That could happen, but hopefully not. Everyone is trying to help them get back out to sea.’
‘Why do they come in towards the beach?’
‘No one really knows.’
‘That’s what Miss Kennedy says.’
Miss Kennedy was the voice of authority, apparently.
‘Daddy, let’s have a staring contest.’
This was the latest thing. Along with thumb wrestling and rock-paper-scissors, playing at seeing who would blink first. All the rage in the playground, it seemed.
Mark leaned in and stared at Nathan, whose eyes widened. Mark began goofing around, making funny faces, and Nathan laughed, but he didn’t blink, kept his gaze steady. The boy was good. Mark felt air against his eyeballs. The pressure built up until he felt himself flinch and blink. Damn it.
Nathan was triumphant. ‘I win!’
‘Well done, Big Guy.’
Mark remembered something. ‘I’ve got a prize for you.’
Mark reached into his pocket and took out the piece of sea glass.
Nathan was well chuffed. He took it in his hand and examined it like a diamond. Rubbed his fingers all over it. Something about that grainy surface was captivating. ‘Cool.’ He turned the piece upside down, so the fat end was at the top, and held it out to Mark. ‘Look, it’s a bit like a stormtrooper helmet.’
Mark laughed. It wasn’t really, but good imagination. ‘So it is.’
Nathan placed the piece down carefully on the table. ‘I’ll put it with the collection after tea.’ He started into his strawberries and yoghurt.
Mark looked at the clock again. He’d distracted himself for all of five minutes talking to the boy, but now worry swamped back in.
If she just forgot it was her turn to pick up Nathan, she would’ve been home by now. Maybe she went shopping after work. That wasn’t like her, and anyway, why would her phone be off? Out of juice? She was always forgetting to charge the bloody thing. She wouldn’t have gone for a drink with anyone from Caledonia Dreaming after work either, she never did anything like that. And it was even less likely at the moment since she wasn’t drinking and was so tired all the time. First trimester and all that. And sick too, not just in the mornings. Certain smells set her off – coffee, toothpaste, lilies. Maybe she’d gone to the doctor or hospital. But the surgery would be shut now, and it was crazy to phone the ERI when she’d only been gone for two hours. Wasn’t it?
He kept coming back to the same thing. The time after Nathan was born. When she couldn’t cope and had fallen off the earth for ten days, leaving him alone with the baby, having to explain to midwives and doctors and family and friends and then the police. But not really understanding it himself, just that she’d been down, had struggled to bond with the baby, struggled to cope.
‘I’m finished,’ Nathan said in a sing-song voice. ‘Please can I come down?’
‘And please can I play on my DS again for a little bit?’
That was never usually allowed, not after tea, not on normal days. This wasn’t a normal day and Mark needed time to think.
Nathan made an exaggerated shocked face and Mark laughed.
‘Weren’t expecting that answer, were you?’
Nathan leapt towards him, all sharp elbows and frantic energy, and gave him a hug.
‘Thank you, Daddy.’
Mark held on for a moment longer than usual, then let the boy go.