Grievous Angel
Author:Quintin Jardine
    This is my story, or part of it. A memoir, and a confession, by Robert Morgan Skinner, chief constable. And this is how it came to be written.

    I love my wife, unequivocally.

    I knew that from the off. On the morning that I met Aileen de Marco, in a conference room, around a crowded table, I understood that things were going to happen between us that would reshape my life.

    Few would take me for a romantic, that’s not my image, but I can be. I believe in the existence of the soul. I believe that when two people who are meant for each other come face to face, their eyes lock and in that time, something passes between them, a bond is formed that transcends . . . everything. I believe in soulmates.

    That’s how it was with Aileen and me. It took a little while for her to realise it, but I knew instantly. For I’m one of the lucky ones; it had happened to me before.

    Not that I understood at the time. I was only a kid, and so was Myra Graham, but when we met at that party something shifted inside me.

    You might not believe this if you know me, but until that point in my life I was an introverted lad. From the age of four or five, I’d been bullied and abused, in secret, by my furtive beast of a brother. I was too scared to complain to my mother, not that it would have done me any good, for as far as she was concerned, in what I didn’t know at the time was her alcoholic haze, her Michael was followed by his own wee patch of sunshine, everywhere he went. As for our dad, he was a busy man, with ghosts in his own past that made him remote in my early years . . . and I’d been warned by my oppressor that if I opened my mouth to him, I could kiss goodbye to my two front teeth. Even at that, why did I stay silent? Let’s just say that shame came into it.

    If I hadn’t met Myra when I did, in a dark corner at a Saturday-night sixteenth birthday bash for the older brother of a schoolmate, whose name is lost to me now, who knows how it would have ended. Today, my guess is that the sly beatings, the Chinese burns, the arm-twisting, the finger breaking, and yes, okay . . . it took forty years before I could admit this to a living soul, and even now, only Aileen knows the whole truth . . . the sexual attacks, would have carried on until I’d done something terminal either to myself, or to Michael. (The latter more likely? Possibly. I can’t say for certain.)

    He was ten years older than me, and by the time I found Myra, he had gone into the army, his absence affording me physical, if not emotional, relief. She changed me, just by looking into my eyes, that brave, reckless, lustful, dark-haired girl.

    My class marks had always been good, and I had made the school football team easily, but in spite of that, I was a kid with few friends and no self-esteem, living in a fog of fear of my brother’s frequent home leaves, and in dark, undefined guilt over things that I knew were wrong but couldn’t rationalise. I was a damaged, troubled, introverted boy. Who? Bob Skinner? Come on! Yes, honest to God, that’s how it was.

    But in the moment that our souls bonded, Myra’s and mine, a hot wave surged through me. It took me years to define it properly, but now I know that it was my first realisation that I was, after all, a person of value, and that someone could appraise me without pity or disgust.

    Then she took my hand. ‘You’re not odd at all, Bob Skinner,’ she said. ‘Louisa in your class told me you were weird. I reckon she’s the daftie. Actually I think you’re quite dishy.’

    I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to reply. So I kissed her, hard. I didn’t know how to do that either. On the day I die, I’ll still recall the way her tongue licked my teeth and opened my mouth. She will always be the boldest person I’ve ever known. It was her strength, and her weakness, all in one.

    ‘Silly Louisa,’ she whispered, as we came up for air.

    She made me walk her home, and she made me take her to the cinema, which was still clinging to life in Motherwell, on the following Friday. During those six days, I did a lot of thinking; it was confused at first but gradually I reached conclusions. I couldn’t express it, but I was in love. I wanted Myra, but to have her, I knew that I had to be more than ‘dishy’. I had to become someone she could admire truly. That meant that I had to become someone worthy of my own respect. I had to fight back against Michael. I had to stop being afraid. I had to turn my shame into anger.

    I was nowhere near full grown, but I was fourteen years old, big for my age, my voice had broken and the hair was sprouting on my crotch. I was beginning to be aware of my body, and of its potential. Even before my first proper date with Myra, I did two things. I joined the YMCA, so that I could use its gym, and I joined an amateur boxing club. The coach there threw me in at the deep end with an experienced lad around my own age and size, to see what I could do naturally, before he started teaching me anything.

    I should have been nervous, but I wasn’t. All my knowledge of boxing had come from television so I decided to imagine I was George Foreman and that the other kid was . . . Michael. Someone rang the bell, and thirty seconds later they were hauling me off him.

    I trained four times a week after that, twice at the gym, twice at the boxing club, where the coach took me in hand and taught me proper technique. When my sadist brother came home three months later, I bided my time, for a couple of days. I stayed up late one night after my parents had gone to bed, waiting for him to arrive home from the Electric Bar. I knew he’d have a bellyful in him but I wasn’t about to give him an even chance. I was there when he stumbled into the kitchen, in my jeans and my boxing vest. He blinked when he saw me; by then he wasn’t that much taller than I was, and I’d put on muscle in the gym. I stepped in close and hit him in the gut. The breath left him first, and then the beer. I left him lying in it.

    I lay awake all night waiting for him to sober up and come looking for me, but he didn’t. I expected vengeance next day and I was ready for it, but nothing happened. Michael rarely spoke to me after that, or came near me. Bottom line, he’d been a coward all along.

    Our relationship did end in violence, a couple of years later, after he’d been found out by, and kicked out of, the army, and alcohol had taken over his life completely. He hit our mother, and I walked in on the scene. By that time I was sixteen and serious; I beat him senseless with her screaming in the background. In the wake of that, he was institutionalised, and I never saw him again, until a few years ago, when I identified his body.

    All of that stayed secret, locked up within me. I never told my parents, or Myra. The first person to hear any of the story was Andy Martin, my closest friend. I had to tell him because Michael was found drowned in his territory, but even then I withheld the most personal truths.

    My first soulmate changed me from a scared, scarred little boy, and put me on the road to becoming what, for better or worse, I am today. She set me free; without her influence . . . Who knows? But of this I’m certain. I wouldn’t be telling this story, in this form, today.

    I didn’t change her, though; I never curbed that recklessness, or that self-indulgence of hers. If Myra wanted something and it was within her reach, she would have it. The same applied to men. Make no mistake, she loved me as much as I loved her, but for her, love and sex were separate things. I wasn’t perfect either, mind; at university, I had a relationship with a charismatic, talented girl, who went on to great things later. It might have flowered, but the guilt was too much for me, and so I ended it. Myra never felt such qualms though. I don’t know how many lovers she had in our time together. I told myself, and my daughter, that I knew nothing of them until after she was dead, but if that were true, I wouldn’t be the detective I am. Of course I had suspicions over the years, but I kept them secret, within myself. I’m good at that: it may be a legacy from the horror years with my brother.

    If Myra hadn’t died? If, if, if, if . . . hell, ‘if’ I could eliminate a single word from our language that would be it. Truth, she did bloody die, she did, and so did part of me, the place where my compassion dwelt. It was lost for years, and so in a way was I, all the way through a later loving relationship, and then a doomed second marriage that I could have saved, maybe, with a little more kindness and generosity and a little less self-obsession.

    Do I feel guilty about that failure? Yes. Do I regret it? No. For Sarah is where she wants to be, and so am I. She and I were never soulmates. We were lovers who settled for what we had, and in our case that wasn’t enough for a lifetime.

    And now I’m with Aileen, my second chance, my second redeemer. For, yes, she saved me too. She took a hard, bitter, obdurate man, and she softened me. It didn’t happen all at once, but gradually she restored my inner warmth and she stopped me from applying my expectations of myself to everyone around me.

    There are moments in my life now that, honestly, I’ve never known before. I’ll walk in on her when she’s busy, doing something that requires her full concentration . . . clothes-filing, for example, or shoe-arranging, or saving the planet . . . and I’ll gaze at her without her being aware of it, and I’ll smile. Then she’ll look back, her eyebrows slightly raised in puzzlement, and she’ll say, ‘What?’ and I’ll laugh out loud and take her in my arms and lift her up and say, ‘Nothing, baby, nothing. You make me happy, that’s all.’

    But oh, if only it could be like that all the time. There are still the black moods, and they will never leave me. I’ve seen terrible things in my life, work and private, and I’ve done some too, the sort that would not look good to the world outside. But that brings me back to my unwitting gift from Michael, that capacity for secrecy so deep that it’s been known to lead me to hide things even from myself.

    A few months ago, even though I’ve risen to the rank of chief police officer, and theoretically I’m above the messy end of the job, circumstances took me to a couple of crime scenes, two of the nastiest I’ve ever encountered. Experiences such as those have led me to develop a ritual. It’s very simple. Once all the smoke has cleared or the blood has been swept away . . . or substitute the metaphor of your choice . . . I will sit down in the garden room in our house in Gullane, preferably in the dark unless it’s high summer, when the daylight in the north never quite fades, and I will kill a bottle of very good red wine, maybe a Pesquera or a Mas La Plana. If that doesn’t do the trick I will open another, and a third, if that’s what it takes. Next morning I will rise early, feeling too bad to be allowed into hell, and I will run along the shore to Dirleton and back, or beyond, to North Berwick . . . if that’s what it takes. It’s my way of purging myself, and it’s always worked . . . until those two horror scenes a few months ago.

    We all have our limits . . . even me, for all that I’ve tried to deny it. I tried my hardest to chase the memories of the couple, incinerated in their kitchen, and of the men in the isolated barn, tortured relentlessly before they were killed. I followed my ritual: we were low on wine, so I drank countless Corona beers, until I fell asleep in my armchair. I woke just after six, and ran fifteen miles, sticking to the roads because it was dark when I set out. I assumed that I would be fine after that, but . . . wrong.

    That evening, I sat silently through dinner, drinking water rather than alcohol, then watched television, a replay of Lewis on a nostalgia channel, not caring that I’d seen it before. As I looked at the screen, gradually the images began to fade, and were replaced by others, from that house, from that barn, from other places, a first-hand documentary of the evil that I had witnessed and known, all the way back to my childhood and Michael, my own true scream movie, all of it put together from my own life, suffering seen, suffering inflicted, suffering endured. I squeezed my eyes closed, as tightly as I could manage, but I couldn’t kill the images. I shoved my knuckles into the sockets until they hurt, but it made no difference.

    And then Aileen slid on to my lap, tugging at my wrists. I resisted, but she kept on pulling, until my forearms were resting on the arms of the chair, and she was kissing my closed, moist eyelids, until gradually I relaxed and I could open them and the daymare was over and I could look into her face, and take in her distress.

    ‘What is it, love?’ she whispered.

    ‘Everything,’ I said, hoarsely. ‘All the . . . all . . . everything. My life. It’s caught up with me.’

    ‘Tell me.’

    ‘Tell you what, love?’

    ‘Everything. Everything that you’ve got bottled up inside you. Talk to me, Bob. You don’t, you know.’

    ‘I do,’ I protested. ‘I talk to you all the time.’

    ‘Sure you do, but you set your limits. There’s a part of you that’s locked up, that’s closed to me.’

    I tried to fob her off. ‘You wouldn’t want to know what’s in there.’

    It didn’t work. ‘I need to know,’ she insisted. ‘I’m sitting here watching you have a breakdown, before my eyes. I’ve seen it coming for the last couple of days, and it’s just about the scariest thing I’ve ever known. You think the kids haven’t sensed that there’s something wrong? Mark’s noticed too, and so has James Andrew. “Is Dad okay?” he asked me last night. I want to help, Bob, but I can’t as long as I’m on the outside. Tell me, love. Tell me everything about you that I don’t know already. You have to. I’m not moving from here until you do.’

    And so I did. I began from my earliest days, with Michael’s reign of terror. I tried to downplay that as much as I could, but Aileen didn’t buy it. She made me set out every detail of his torture, and of his violations. When I told her the worst of it, we were both in tears. ‘You’re a very special person,’ she said.

    ‘Me?’ I gasped. ‘How do you work that out? How does being buggered by your brother when you were seven make you special?’

    ‘You survived it, and you didn’t kill him.’

    ‘Ah, but I thought about it. I knew where he was, afterwards, and there were times when I thought about finding him and finishing him. I could have done it, being what I am, without ever being found out. I could simply have made him disappear. The very fact that I didn’t became part of my guilt. I have no idea whether he ever preyed on other kids. I should have thought of that, and removed the possibility, even if it was only by discussing my own experiences with another officer, in another force. But I didn’t, I kept it to myself.’

    ‘There’s no evidence that he ever did that, is there?’

    ‘None that I know of. I like to think that he redeemed himself, that his banishment made him a better person.’

    ‘Then stop beating yourself up. It happened, it’s long in the past, and now you’ve shared it with me, it makes me love and admire you all the more.’ She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘So move on; go on. Tell me the rest of it. Open yourself to me.’

    And I did. I set out for her all my secrets, shared with her all of the evil memories I had gathered and stored through my career, those things that I’ve seen because of the job, those deeds that I’ve done because someone had to, told her where all the bodies were buried . . . in a couple of cases, literally so. I talked, and she listened, for two hours. When I was done, I was spent . . . and so was Aileen, exhausted and shaken.

    ‘Do you feel the better for that?’ I asked her.

    ‘No. But that wasn’t the idea.’ She paused. ‘That man you shot,’ she whispered. ‘In your cottage. Did you have any other option?’

    I thought about her question carefully. ‘Probably,’ I told her, when I was ready, ‘but the guy had gone rogue, he’d already killed a couple of people . . . not to mention the fact that he’d already shot me.’ I added, ‘If he’d walked out of there, it would have been embarrassing for those who sent him. I made the call, and to be frank, it’s been a long time since I even thought about him. In the same situation, I’d do the same thing. To be even more frank, I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done to someone else . . . apart from that unfortunate kid in the boxing ring in Motherwell all those years ago. It’s the cruelty that I’ve seen human beings inflict on each other; that’s what tears me up. Now you’ve made me share it with you, but I’m not sure that it will help. A burden shared might be a burden halved, but now you’re stuck with one you never had before.’

    ‘Then write it down. And don’t worry about me; I’m tougher than I look.’

    ‘You’re not serious,’ I exclaimed. ‘There’s things I can’t ever write down, can’t ever mention outside this room.’

    ‘Then stick to the stories you can tell. They don’t need to be for publication, but maybe as you examine each one at length, you’ll be able to put them in a better perspective.’

    And so, that is what I’m going to do. They won’t be chronological, these . . . memoirs, I called them earlier, and that’s as good a word as any. They’ll be stories that my wife reckons need telling, for therapeutic reasons, before I become a psychological basket case.

    But where to begin? Basket cases? Why not? Let’s start with the man in the wheelchair, the Stephen Hawking of crime, as a chum of mine once called him.

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