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Ian Rankin

A Cool Head

Quick Reads 2009

To Richard Havers, who took me to the Beach Boys concert where I got the idea for this story. They were singing a song about always keeping a cool head and a warm heart. I started to wonder about the opposite – a hot head and a heart as cold as stone.

Chapter One. Gravy’s Story

My dad used to say to me, ‘Try to keep a cool head and a warm heart.’ At least, I think it was my dad. I don’t really remember him. I’ve got a shoebox with photos in it, and in those photos he’s always showing his teeth. I’ve rubbed my thumb over his face so much, he’s become blurry, and that seems to be what’s happened to my memories, too. They’re fuzzy at the edges, and sometimes even fuzzy in the middle. If I went back to see Dr Murray, he’d tell me to start taking the pills again. But I don’t like the pills. They make my head hot. My dad wouldn’t like that. If he’s still alive, he’ll be fifty or sixty. I’m thirty, or something like that. Sometimes I stick my hand under my shirt just to check that my heart is still warm.

Cool head. Warm heart.

I remembered those words when I saw Benjy staggering towards me. He was holding a hand to his chest. His T-shirt was white mostly, but with a lot of red. The red looked sticky and dark. There was a bag in his other hand, the kind you get at the grocer’s shop, made of blue plastic.

I didn’t recognise Benjy at first. What I saw was a car. It came in through the graveyard gates. There wasn’t supposed to be a burial today, so I was a bit surprised. Visitors usually park on the gravel outside the gates. There’s a big sign, PARKING FOR VISITORS. That was where visitors were supposed to park. But this car drove through the open gates. I wondered if I would get in trouble for leaving them open. I wondered who was in the car. It was a black car, nice and shiny. Maybe it belonged to someone official. The driver wasn’t a good driver. He nearly hit one of the gravestones. The car kept hopping forwards, kangaroo petrol, they call it. That meant the driver was a learner, but I couldn’t see any L-plates.

The car stopped and the door opened. Nobody got out at first. But then I saw a leg. And then another leg. And then the driver managed to get out of the car. He made a groaning sound, and that’s when he pressed his hand to his chest. He left the door open and started walking towards me. I was collecting leaves and twigs and bunches of dead flowers. They would all go on my bonfire. I had a wheelbarrow and a rake, and I was wearing my thick gloves.

‘Gravy!’

It was when he said my name that I knew I was supposed to know him. His face and hair were covered in sweat. He had a denim jacket and his jeans had splashes on them. He was wearing an old pair of trainers. I was surprised to recognise Benjy. Benjy always wears a black leather coat. He always wears cowboy boots, and tight black trousers, and a black T-shirt. Today was different, for some reason.

‘Gravy!’

Everyone calls me Gravy. It’s got nothing to do with food. I can’t really cook. Just microwave meals and things from the chip shop. Toast, I can make toast – and beans and fried eggs. But not lasagne or that sort of thing…

‘Gravy!!!’

No, that’s not why I got the name. It’s short for graveyard, because that’s where I work. And before I even worked here, I would come for walks here. I would read the people’s stories on all the headstones. When they were born, where they lived and what their jobs were. I like all that stuff. And the bits of poems and prayers, and sometimes a carving or a photo. Those photos always get damp, though, even when they’re in plastic. They rot or they fade, like thoughts and memories – and people in the ground.

‘Where’s your coat?’ I asked Benjy. He was near me now, only ten feet away. Or maybe twelve feet. He’d stopped walking and was bent over at the waist, as though tired.

‘Never mind that,’ he said. Then he tried to spit, but it was all gloopy and just hung there until he wiped it away with the bag hand – the hand carrying the bag. There was something heavy in the bag. Small but heavy. That’s a good way of telling you about Benjy, too. He’s small but heavy. He used to say he was a boxer. His punches would just miss my chin when he showed me. He wasn’t really a boxer, but he knew about boxing. He went to matches and he watched videos of fights.

When he stopped bending over, he looked around, as if making sure there was no one else in the graveyard.

‘Got something you want me to hide?’ I asked. I’d hidden things for him before. Sometimes, weeks or months later, he asked for them back. Other times he didn’t. That was how I met him the first time. He was hiding a bag behind a gravestone.

‘Yeah,’ Benjy said now. ‘Me, for a start.’ I didn’t say anything. He made another of those groaning noises and tipped his head back. Then he said a swear word, and that made me a bit embarrassed. I looked away, leaning with one hand on my rake. The man who worked with me, my boss, had gone home ages ago, like most days. He told me what to do, and then went and sat in his hut with a newspaper or book, his radio, a flask of tea and some food. He usually threw away the sandwiches his wife made him and went to a baker’s instead. He never gave the sandwiches to me, and never brought back anything for me from the shops. I waited until he went home, then I picked the sandwiches up off the compost heap. I always checked them to make sure there were no bugs or bits of leaf.

So, anyway, it was just me and Benjy in the graveyard. The sun had left the sky, so maybe it was time for me to go home too. I can’t tell the time, so I have to guess these things. I do have a home, though. It’s a room in a house. There are other people in the house. And if I lose track of time, one of them comes and fetches me, if they remember…

‘Gravy? You paying attention?’

‘Yes.’

‘You need to pay attention.’

‘Yes, Benjy.’

‘I need to hide somewhere. How about your boss’s hut?’

‘Did he say it was all right?’

‘Sure he did. I just spoke to him.’

‘That’s fine, then.’

‘Is it locked?’

‘He always locks it.’

‘But you’ve got a key?’

I shook my head. I used to have a key, but then my boss found me sleeping in the hut one morning. I’d been there all night. It was so peaceful and quiet. Benjy was making a hissing sound. Then he started coughing, and the spit that came out of his mouth was pink, like he’d been eating sweets. He tried wiping it away again, but the bag was too heavy.

‘I need to hide,’ he repeated.

‘Didn’t he give you the key?’

‘No.’

‘That’s a shame.’ I thought for a moment. ‘How about hiding behind the hedge?’ I pointed to it. That’s where the bonfires happen. It’s where the compost is kept. And the digger. Not a big digger, but big enough for a hole six feet deep.

Benjy didn’t seem to be listening. He fell to his knees and I thought maybe he was going to pray. ‘Tired,’ was all he said.

‘Yes,’ I told him. ‘You must be.’

He managed to look up at me. ‘Nothing gets past you, Gravy.’ Then he shoved the bag forward. It was sitting on the ground in front of him. ‘Hide this for me.’

‘Sure. Will you be wanting it back?’

‘Not a chance.’ His head slumped forward again. I could see his chest and shoulders rise and fall. He really was tired, so I left him there and tiptoed to a different part of the graveyard, and did some more raking.

It was almost dark by the time I got back to him. My wheelbarrow was empty. I’d left it with the rake next to the digger. I kept my gloves with me. They would go home with me. They were good gloves.

     

 

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