Category: The International Literary Quarterly

Interlitq publishes "Admissions", a story by Andrew McCallum Crawford

Andrew McCallum Crawford

Andrew McCallum Crawford
The landlord had doctored the phone so that any initial 0 resulted in the line going dead; receiving long-distance calls wasn’t a problem, but making them should have been impossible. Alan got round it easily. All he had to do was tap the cradle ten times then dial the rest of the number. He wouldn’t be performing that trick today, however. Although he was sure it would have proved impossible for even the most resourceful BT engineer, he didn’t want to risk the call being traced to his address.
The flat backed onto the local cemetery, the main reason why the rent was so low. He stood on the balcony and watched a shallow grave being dug, the hiss as the spade slid into the silty soil, and the occasional crunch when it hit a buried stone. The grave was the second of a pair, the first was already finished. Wasn’t there a saying about revenge? What Alan was doing – what he was about to do – wasn’t revenge, it was simply a matter of putting the record straight. If they listened to what he had to say a tragedy would be averted.
He pulled the front door shut and double locked it, well aware that the landlord could gain entry whenever he desired as he had his own key. Alan had come back a few times in the early hours to find the kitchen light on. Whether this was some kind of cryptic message from his nibs was anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was merely absentmindedness on Alan’s part, but it stoked his paranoia. He didn’t like the man, that was the simple truth. Seeing him once a month to hand over the rent was more than enough. It wasn’t worth bothering about. If the landlord was entering the flat uninvited he could do nothing about it. The first thing he had been told when he moved in was not to change the locks. The obvious solution was to find another flat, but he had trouble keeping up with the rent on this place, never mind paying a deposit on a new one.
He still thought of it as warm for the end of October, even though he’d been in the country for three years. This was part of the problem. He had one foot back in Scotland when he should have been living for the moment, living for now. God knows he was trying, but he had become overwhelmed by the effort to eke out a living, even though he was working full time. Bills, making sure he paid them on time, had become an obsession, even to the point of going without food. But that was Alan, a man who put his obligations before his health. Dependable. Solid as a rock. Naïve to a fault, some might have said.
He made his way into the centre of town, keeping well into the shaded side of the street, and almost collided with a coffin lid propped at the entrance to an apartment block. As was the custom, the dear departed’s particulars were sellotaped onto the wood. Alan remembered reeling the first time he had seen this method of announcing a funeral, but he was slowly getting used to it. Living in a flat which looked onto a cemetery must have been helping, too. Not that he’d ever actually been to a funeral over here, but he’d watched plenty of them from the balcony. Something struck him about the coffins, their flimsiness, as if they weren’t made to last. He’d asked someone about it. No, they weren’t made to last, they were made to rot. Graves were rented out in the city’s cemeteries; as soon as an appropriate time had passed, the family would dig up the bones and place them in an ossiary. This was also the reason for the shallow graves. Alan couldn’t imagine himself doing that, to him it was more than shocking. He was, however, an expert at digging things up.
The Council of Britain English School was on the corner of National Defence Street and guarded by a man with a machine gun. Alan was on nodding terms with him, having been deemed acceptable as an Oral Examiner; the exams were run from a reinforced bunker in the basement. This extra wage was keeping him alive. It had even spurred him to open a bank account. Payment was in cash, and it had amounted to a substantial wad, unfortunately not substantial enough for a deposit on a new flat. Planking the money in his gaff wasn’t an option, for obvious reasons. He took the lift to the fifth floor. The library carried prospectuses for every university in the UK, arranged alphabetically. He soon found what he was looking for. He scribbled the number on a scrap of paper. It was all turning out to be easier than he had thought, perhaps a little too easy.
At the telephone exchange he walked into a riot of voices shouting in Russian, Albanian and Polish, languages of which he had no knowledge. All he could do was listen, look at the faces and make assumptions. No sound of English. He was very much on his own, and that was the way he wanted it. The first thing he had done when he arrived in the country was sit down and work things out for what they really were. It had nothing to do with assumptions, and was in no way as cathartic as he had hoped. In fact, it was the opposite. He felt disgusted with what he had come to realise about people he had once been close to, when everything had been nothing more than a laugh. For a time, he had laughed along with the rest of them, like an idiot, even when the truth was staring them all in the face.
The conclusion he had reached was that no one cared. Hardly earth-shattering, but that was the bottom line. The problem was that Alan cared. He had cared then, and he cared even more now, because things had been brought to a head. It was one of the reasons, though not the main reason, why he had removed himself from the situation, the situation being Scotland, the version he had been living. But what’s the point in caring when no one else does? You get angry at people’s willful blindness, and willful was the only word to describe it. It eats you up. Maybe you’re wrong. Alan wasn’t wrong, though. He’d seen things. He’d seen them with his own eyes. It came down to character. Some people can get away with murder – or worse – if they can make other people laugh.
He bought 1000 units and was given a chunky plastic card with a number scrawled on it in blue marker. Cubicle 28 had just been vacated. He slid the door shut behind him and placed the card on the shelf next to the phone. When he was sure the meter had been reset to zero he lifted the receiver. He removed the scrap of paper from his pocket and started to punch the keys. A pause, then the ringing tone. A voice in the earpiece whispered, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ It was his own voice.
He was about to hang up when someone answered.
‘Good afternoon.’ A woman. ‘University of Scotland Cowgate Building. How can I help you?’
‘Hello. Is that the Primary Education department?’
‘I’ll put you through.’
Vivaldi. Summer. Most of it. He watched the digits tick over on the meter. He hadn’t bargained for this. Maybe his money would run out before he had the chance to talk to someone. Summer slowly dragged on to Autumn.
‘Department of Education.’ Another woman.
‘Hello. Can I speak to someone in Admissions?’
‘I’m afraid we’re closed for admissions.’ She actually sounded apologetic.
‘No, it’s about someone who has already enrolled.’
‘Are you a parent?’
‘Are you a parent?’
‘No, I’m…I have information about someone who has enrolled on your B.Ed Primary Education course.’
‘It’s rather important.’
‘Please hold.’
No Vivaldi this time. His eyes were on the meter. The numbers had already clicked round to 760. Strange noises, buzzing and whistling, in the earpiece. Surely they weren’t trying to trace the call?
‘Hello. Dan Nicol, Dean’s office. How can I help?’
‘Hello, yes. I’ve got some information about…’
‘Can I have your name, please?’
‘It’s about someone who’s just started the B.Ed…’
‘Yes, I’m afraid we can’t go any further until you give me your particulars.’
‘You’ve accepted someone onto your Primary Teaching course who’s…’
‘If you could give me your details…’
‘You’re not listening.’ 940. It was as if the meter was speeding up. ‘You’ve allowed someone…’
‘Please stop, sir. I really must ask you to identify yourself.’
All he had to do was say the name, the name of the beast he was talking about. The line crackled in his ear. Scotland. Why were the people on the spot, the ones who had fed him the information long-distance, not doing something? Then again, why would they take the risk when Alan was there, a thousand miles away but a sensitive soul with a conscience and a big mouth? He could prove nothing. All he had was the knowledge of what he had seen. Other people had seen, too, or heard, but nothing was concrete, nothing would stand up in court. They all had their own lives to live, they had other things to care about. 990. He still had time. All he had to do was give the name and things would take their course.
A hiss in his ear, like a snake, or a spade slipping into silt.
‘Sir? Hello? Your name, sir? I’m listening.’
He pressed his fingers down on the cradle and kept them there. 998. Almost an emergency, but it had nothing to do with him. He stared at the numbers until he was sure he’d finished it, that the line was dead.

Interlitq publishes "Dunfermline Bus Station, 196-", a story by Andrew McCallum Crawford

Andrew McCallum Crawford

Dunfermline Bus Station, 196-
Andrew McCallum Crawford
Margaret reached to the window and rubbed a hole in the steam with her sleeve. It was still raining. There was a clock on the building across the street. She had to be careful. She’d left wee David with the neighbours. Bill would be home about five. It wasn’t wee David she was worried about, it was Bill coming home early. If he found out she was here he’d kill her.
She rearranged the things on the table: the cup of tea and the scone, which she’d hardly touched, and the empty sachet of butter. The teaspoon and the knife. The tinfoil ashtray. She was the only customer, apart from an old woman near the door sipping a glass of hot orange.
Margaret had chosen the snack bar because it held memories of her children. Her family. She still thought about them like that, as her family, even though she had left them. They used to come here when everything was good. If not good, not bad. Almost bearable. Plates of chips and bottles of Coca Cola once a month, if Patrick hadn’t drunk all the money. She remembered how the coloured straws would bob in the bottles. Alan, her youngest back then, always wanted a glass. He said the straws made too much froth in his mouth.
How would Patrick look when he walked in? It had been a while. Then again, it would be a miracle if he turned up. She didn’t even know if he got her last letter. She’d sent dozens, asking about the children. He’d replied to none of them, apart from the first. ‘Don’t write again,’ was all it said. There wasn’t a signature, but the words were smudged, probably with whisky. It wouldn’t have been tears, Patrick was a man who expressed his emotions with his fists, nothing else. He was a miner, a hard man.
God, she could pick them. She opened a new packet of cigarettes, 20 Kensitas Tipped, bought at the newsagents in Falkirk before she got on the bus. She would have to remember to hide them later, Bill would want to know where she got the money. She’d been saving up the change from the messages, placing the coins carefully in the space behind the wardrobe. What he didn’t know about he wouldn’t worry about. She looked outside. She’d asked Patrick to be here at one, but time was getting on. He must have got the letter, unless he’d moved, but he wouldn’t have done that. The house was tied to the mine, it was a good thing, that was what they used to say. In any case, he wouldn’t have known how to apply for a new house, all he ever cared about was his work and the Club. Not one decent reply in two years. Not one line on a postcard to say how the children were. She was out of her mind with worry, and it was becoming impossible to cover it up. She wanted to see them so much, she could have got a bus straight out to the village, she’d thought about it a million times, but she wasn’t allowed to go back there. She’d tried to talk to Bill about it. It was a short conversation; it covered old ground quickly. ‘You chose me,’ he said. ‘You chose me and the baby.’
It was her penance.
A shape passed by the window, really close. Margaret immediately turned away, hiding her face. For a moment she thought it was Bill, but it wasn’t. Patrick lurched through the door, his overcoat hanging off his shoulders. His forehead was soaking wet, glistening.
She dragged the ashtray towards her and stubbed out the cigarette.
He collapsed into the chair on the other side of the table.
‘Did you have to get drunk?’ she said.
He pushed his hair back and wiped his hand on his coat. His wedding ring was the colour of bad nicotine. ‘Aye, that’s you,’ he said. ‘Always ready with a remark.’
‘You got my letter, then?’ she said.
He took one of her cigarettes. He had trouble lighting it, he was shaking so much, his head was swaying. He blew smoke across the table, her scone was covered in it. It didn’t matter, she wasn’t hungry. ‘Aye, I got your letter,’ he said.
‘How are the children?’ she said.
He was staring at her. His drunk look, as if he didn’t understand. It was all coming back to her now. ‘Where’s your fancy man?’ he said. ‘Does he trust you on your own?’
‘He’s not my fancy man,’ she said. ‘He’s my husband.’
‘Oh, aye, that’s right. I read about that in one of your letters. Before I threw it on the fire.’
‘How are the children?’ she said.
‘Though it’s funny how you could get married to him when you’re still married to me.’
‘That was all settled in court,’ she said. ‘You know that fine.’
‘In the eyes of the Church…’
‘I don’t care what the church says,’ she said. ‘Everything’s above board.’
‘And how’s the, eh…?’ he said. He took a long drag on the cigarette and held it. He coughed when he exhaled. ‘It must be getting big.’
‘His name’s David,’ she said. ‘He’s fine. I’m expecting another.’
‘Yez’ve been busy,’ he said.
Now it was the sarcasm.
‘That’ll be another bastard in the brood,’ he said.
‘Stop it!’ she said. She was aware of the old woman turning slightly in her seat, but it was only to see if her bus was in. ‘Keep your voice down.’
‘What’s wrong?’ he said. ‘Does the truth hurt?’
‘How are the children?’ she said, again. ‘That’s why I wanted to see you. There’s no point dragging up the past.’
‘Is there not?’ he said. ‘I think dragging up the past is a good thing. We left a lot unsaid, me and you.’
‘We could have talked if you hadn’t…’
‘For a start, how come your fancy man didn’t want your children? Eh? That’s a good question, int it? In fact, that’s the only question.’
‘Don’t bring that up,’ she said.
‘I’d like a fucking answer,’ he said. ‘If you’ve got the time.’
She wasn’t scared of him any more. He couldn’t hurt her now. She remembered when she told him she was pregnant with wee David, and the doing he gave her. That was why she chose Bill. She chose Bill, the baby and a new life. It had felt like she was escaping, at first.
‘Things happen,’ she said. ‘You don’t always get what you wish for.’
‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘I didn’t wish for three wee weans to bring up on my tod, but I got landed with it.’
‘How are they?’ she said. ‘That’s why…’
‘And I’m not drunk, by the way,’ he said. He started coughing and covered his mouth with his hand, the fingernails blue, full of ingrained dirt. His eyes roamed the walls. ‘This place could do with a lick of paint,’ he said.
‘Do you still…’ she said.
‘Coca Cola and plates of chips,’ he said. He seemed to focus on something on the table.
‘Does Alan still have a thing about straws?’ she said. She would make him talk if it was the last thing she did.
He crushed out the cigarette and immediately reached for another. ‘Alan?’ he said. ‘Right enough, Alan and his froth. And Bernadette with the salt shaker.’
‘That was Mary-Geraldine,’ she said.
‘Was it?’ he said. ‘Christ, time flies, eh?’
He hadn’t brought them here since she left. She wondered where he took them when he wasn’t working. Surely not to the Club? ‘It hasn’t flown for me,’ she said. ‘Never a day goes by when I don’t think about them.’
‘Aye?’ he said.
‘That’s why I’ve been sending you all the letters. You realise they’re not for…they’re not just for you. I want the children to know I still think about them, that they’ve got a mother.’
He chewed his bottom lip. Was it regret? She didn’t care. He still hadn’t told her anything. Maybe…maybe they could arrange another meeting. He could bring the children with him. She would buy them all chips and Coca Cola. A glass for Alan. She would save up from the messages. Bill would never find out. She would be careful.
‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ he said.
I’m sure there is, she thought. In his sober moments, when her bruises were still tender, he used to say he would always love her, she knew that was what he was leading up to, she could see it in his face. And his wedding ring. But if she could just have some contact with the children now and again. Bill was earning. Maybe if she talked to him, really talked to him, he would come round to the idea. They could all be together, all the children. It didn’t have to be a secret. It wouldn’t have to be anything permanent. Just as long as they knew about each other. They could see each other in the school holidays, if they wanted. At least they would have that choice.
The old woman moaned. She pushed herself up and made for the door.
‘I’ll have to be going soon,’ said Margaret. ‘Maybe…maybe we could meet again?’
‘You could bring the children with you.’
‘It would be just like it was. We could arrange it for…’
‘Margaret, there’s something…’
‘…and if I talk to Bill he might be okay with it, you never…’
‘Margaret! No. There’s something…it’s not going to happen.’
‘What do you mean it’s not going to happen? If I talk to…’
‘Christ, Margaret, I don’t know where they are.’
‘They’ve been…they got taken off me,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t look after them. I tried, Jesus, Mary and Joseph I tried, but I couldn’t.’ He looked at the floor. ‘It was the best thing.’
‘I haven’t seen them for months.’
‘What are you talking about, Patrick?’ she said. ‘Where are they? What do you mean you don’t know?’
‘I don’t…different places…Margaret, even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you.’
‘Even if I knew where they were, I wouldn’t be able…’ He tried to balance the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray, between the serrations. He let go of it. Then he picked it up again. His fingers were trembling. She watched them move towards his mouth. ‘I told them you were in a car crash,’ he said
Something kicked inside her. ‘What car crash?’ she said.
‘It was…I had to tell them something. You just disappeared.’
What car crash? She’d never been in one. Why would he make up a story like that?
Slowly, the things on the table, the cup, the spoon, the crumbs around the scone grew larger as she realised what he really meant.
‘I only had to tell them once,’ he said.
She was back in the village. She was in the house, in the corner of the living room, watching. The children were sitting on the floor with their backs to the fireplace, which was full of cold ashes, as Patrick leaned over them. ‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ he said. Hard. ‘It’s your mother. She’s had an accident.’ Their wee faces looking up at him. She could see their faces clearly, she was watching from the corner, their mouths were open, they didn’t understand. ‘She won’t be coming…she’s gone up to…’ He crossed himself. ‘You’ll never see her again.’ Then the crying, Alan the loudest. And Mary-Geraldine and Bernadette, how would they…
The window was covered in steam. She felt the words building in her throat. She tried to force them out, but nothing would come.
He was walking away.
‘Why did you do it?’ she said. ‘Patrick! Why did you do it?!’
A gust of wind blew rain through the empty doorway. She scrubbed the window with both hands, but there was no sign of him. There was no sign of him at all.