Strange Loyalties

Free Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney

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Authors: William McIlvanney
Christmas for me. And you getting the best present you’d ever had. Oh, he could brighten the day.’
    She finished her coffee.
    â€˜Her name was Ellie,’ she said suddenly. ‘She was a teacher. She didn’t have any children. That’s all I know.’
    â€˜She worked beside him?’
    â€˜Jack.’
    She made my name a long, slow accusation. Having admitted me to the sanctum, she didn’t want me trampling all over it.
    â€˜What do you think Scott did. Jack? Show me pictures? Maybe three or four times in here, in the early hours, he mentioned her. Always just “Ellie”. No second name. And I didn’t ask for it. I know she mattered to him a lot. I know the guilt was damaging him. I know it seemed to have broken up between them. I was sharing his pain. The details weren’t whatmattered. He was bleeding for somebody. Was I supposed to ask for her phone number? He needed a bandage. I was a bandage.’
    â€˜But who is she? Where did she live?’
    As soon as I said it, I knew I had closed the door on myself. She stared at me as if focussing the lens on the microscope. What strange creature have we here? She spoke with carefully muted anger.
    â€˜Why don’t you go to the crematorium and sift the ashes?’
    â€˜If I thought it would help, I would,’ I said.
    I stared back through the lens at her. What strange creature thinks I’m a strange creature?
    She stood up and lifted her cup and lifted mine, though it wasn’t empty, and crossed to the sink and rinsed them out. She went on with making the soup. I wondered, perhaps unworthily, about Katie. Maybe her motives for not wanting to talk about the unknown Ellie were less noble than she made out. Maybe jealousy was one of them. I always suspect self-righteousness. I think it’s usually a way of cosmeticising the truth of self, like a powdered periwig on a headful of lice.
    Katie had brought her pot of soup to the boil and turned it down to simmer.
    â€˜Buster,’ she said.
    Buster recognised his name. He wasn’t as dumb as I had thought. Katie took the leash that was draped round a hook on the kitchen door.
    â€˜If that starts to boil over,’ she said, ‘turn it down some more, will you? I’m taking Buster out to clean himself.’
    I thought about the euphemism when they were gone. It was an expression my father had used. ‘Take Bacchus out toclean himself,’ I could remember him saying. Or Judie. Or Rusty. Or Tara. We had a lot of dogs, which is why I have always liked them as long as they don’t develop delusions of grandeur and begin to think they’re the householder. The phrase reminded me of my family, the four of us living together. I thought of the possibilities there had seemed then and how strangely they had led to me sitting alone in the kitchen of the Bushfield Hotel. The other three were dead. I was glad my parents hadn’t known Scott’s death. I felt somehow responsible towards the other three. We had tried to make some kind of honest contract with the world and it seemed to me the world had cheated on us. The least we were due was some retrospective understanding. I decided I was here to collect.
    I lifted the phone and dialled Glebe Academy. It was the same nice woman from yesterday who answered. John Strachan was with a class. They would have to fetch him. While I waited, I reflected that I had to know more about that closed room of Scott’s life Katie had allowed me to glimpse. If I couldn’t go through the door, maybe I could get in a window. But I would have to be careful in speaking to John Strachan. I wasn’t sure what John knew. I wasn’t even sure what I knew yet. Approach by indirections.
    â€˜Hullo?’
    â€˜Hullo, John. It’s Jack Laidlaw.’
    â€˜Hullo, Jack.’
    A session in a pub can be a great force-feeder of intimacy.
    â€˜Look. I’m sorry to bother you again so soon. Especially

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