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Rebus smiled. GPs throughout Scotland feared their Monday morning surgeries, when people would suddenly appear in droves suffering from complaints read about the previous morning in the Post. No wonder people called the paper an ‘institution’…

‘And all the while,’ Patience Aitken was saying, ‘Grace has been by his bedside. Always patient with him, always looking after him. The woman’s been an angel.’

‘So what’s the problem?’ Rebus nursed not only the telephone, but a headache and a mug of black coffee as well. (Black coffee because he was dieting; a headache for not unconnected reasons.)

‘The problem is that George fell downstairs this morning. He’s dead.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it.’

There was a silence at the other end of the line.

‘I take it,’ Rebus said, ‘that you don’t share my feelings.’

‘George Gallagher was a cantankerous old man, grown from a bitter younger man and most probably a fairly unsociable teenager. I don’t think I ever heard him utter a civil word, never mind a “please” or a “thank you”.’

‘Fine,’ said Rebus, ‘so let’s celebrate his demise.’

Silence again.

Rebus sighed and rubbed his temples. ‘Out with it,’ he ordered.

‘He’s supposed to have fallen downstairs,’ Patience Aitken explained. ‘He did go downstairs in the afternoon, sometimes to watch racing on the telly, sometimes just to stare at a different set of walls from the bedroom. But he fell at around eleven o’clock, which is a bit early for him…’

‘And you think he was pushed?’ Rebus tried not to sound cynical.

Her reply was blunt. ‘Yes, I do.’

‘By this angel who’s managed to put up with him all these years?’

‘That’s right.’

‘OK, Doc, so point me to the medical evidence.’

‘Well, it’s a narrow staircase, pretty steep, about eleven or twelve steps, say. If you weighed around thirteen stone, and happened to slip at the top, you’d sort of be bounced off the sides as you fell, wouldn’t you?’


‘And you’d try to grab hold of something to stop your fall. There’s a banister on one wall. They were waiting for the council to come and fit an extra banister on the other wall.’

‘So you’d reach out to grab something, fair enough.’ Rebus drained the sour black coffee and studied the pile of work in his in-tray.

‘Well, you’d have bruising, wouldn’t you?’ said Patience Aitken. ‘Grazes on your elbows or knees, there’d be marks where you’d clawed at the walls.’

Rebus knew that she was surmising, but could not disagree thus far. ‘Go on,’ he said.

‘George Gallagher only has significant marks on his head, where he hit the floor at the bottom of the stairs, breaking his neck in the process. No real bruising or grazing to the body, no marks on the wall as far as I can see.’

‘So you’re saying he flew from the top landing with a fair bit of momentum, and the first thing he touched was the ground?’

‘That’s how it looks. Unless I’m imagining it.’

‘So he either jumped, or he was pushed?’

‘Yes.’ She paused again. ‘I know it sounds tenuous, John. And Christ knows I don’t want to accuse Grace of anything…’

Rebus picked up a ballpoint pen from beside the telephone and scrabbled on the surface of his desk until he found the back of an envelope upon which to write.

‘You’re only doing your job, Patience,’ he said. ‘Give me the address and I’ll go pay my respects.’

The door of 26 Gillan Drive opened slowly, and a man peered out at Rebus, then ushered him quickly inside, laying a soft hand on his arm.

‘In ye come, son. In ye come. The women are in the living-room. The kitchen’s through here.’ He nodded his head, then led Rebus through a narrow hallway past a closed door, from behind which came tearful sounds, towards a half-open door at the back of the house. Rebus had not even glanced at the stairs as they’d passed them, the stairs which had faced him at the open front door of the house. The kitchen door was now opened from within, and Rebus saw that seven or eight men had squeezed into the tiny back room. There were stale smells of cooking fat and soup, stew and fruit cake, but above them wafted a more recent smelclass="underline" whisky.

‘Here ye are, son.’ Someone was handing him a tumbler with a good inch of amber liquid in it. Everyone else had just such a glass nestling in their hand. They all shuffled from one foot to another, awkward, hardly daring to speak. They had nodded at Rebus’s entrance, but now gave him little heed. Glasses were replenished. Rebus noticed the CoOp price label on the bottle.

‘You’ve just moved into Cashman Street, haven’t you?’ someone was asking someone else.

‘Aye, that’s right. A couple of months ago. The wife used to meet Mrs Gallagher at the shops, so we thought we’d drop in.’

‘See this estate, son, it was miners’ rows once upon a time. It used to be that you lived here and died here. But these days there’s that much coming and going…’

The conversation continued at the level of a murmur. Rebus was standing with his back to the sink’s draining board, next to the back door. A figure appeared in front of him.

‘Have another drop, son.’ And the inch in his glass rose to an inch and a half. Rebus looked around him in vain, seeking out a relative of the deceased. But these men looked like neighbours, like the sons of neighbours, the male half of the community’s heart. Their wives, sisters, mothers would be in the living-room with Grace Gallagher. Closed curtains blocking out any light from what was left of the day: handkerchiefs and sweet sherry. The bereaved in an armchair, with someone else perched on an arm of the chair, offering a pat of the hand and well-meant words. Rebus had seen it all, seen it as a child with his own mother, and as a young man with his father, seen it with aunts and uncles, with the parents of friends and more recently with friends themselves. He wasn’t so young now. The odd contemporary was already falling victim to the Big C or an unexpected heart attack. Today was the last day of April. Two days ago, he’d gone to Fife and laid flowers on his father’s grave. Whether it was an act of remembrance or of simple contrition, he couldn’t have said…

His guide pulled him back to the present. ‘Her daughter-in-law’s already here. Came over from Falkirk this afternoon. ’

Rebus nodded, trying to look wise. ‘And the son?’

Eyes looked at him. ‘Dead these past ten years. Don’t you know that?’

There was suspicion now, and Rebus knew that he had either to reveal himself as a policeman, or else become more disingenuous still. These people, authentically mourning the loss of someone they had known, had taken him as a mourner too, had brought him in here to share with them, to be part of the remembering group.

‘I’m just a friend of a friend,’ he explained. ‘They asked me to look in.’

It looked from his guide’s face, however, as though an interrogation might be about to begin. But then somebody else spoke.

‘Terrible crash it was. What was the name of the town again?’

‘Methil. He’d been working on building a rig there.’

‘That’s right,’ said the guide knowledgeably. ‘Pay night it was. They’d been out for a few drinks, like. On their way to the dancing. Next thing…’

‘Aye, terrible smash it was. The lad in the back seat had to have both legs taken off.’

Well, thought Rebus, I bet he didn’t go to any more hops. Then he winced, trying to forgive himself for thinking such a thing. His guide saw the wince and laid the hand back on his arm.

‘All right, son, all right.’ And they were all looking at him again, perhaps expecting tears. Rebus was growing red in the face.

‘I’ll just…’ he said, motioning towards the ceiling with his head.

‘You know where it is?’

Rebus nodded. He’d seen all there was to see downstairs, and so knew the bathroom must lie upstairs, and upstairs was where he was heading. He closed the kitchen door behind him and breathed deeply. There was sweat beneath his shirt, and the headache was reasserting itself. That’ll teach you, Rebus, it was saying. That’ll teach you for taking a sip of whisky. That’ll teach you for making cheap jokes to yourself. Take all the aspirin you like. They’ll dissolve your stomach lining before they dissolve me.



2011 - 2018