I don’t know quite why it should be, but this has been an extremely taxing book to write. Maybe because it’s set in Fife, where I grew up. It takes place partly in 1978/79 and partly in the present and features a group of characters who are about the same age as I am. I suspect it’s forced me to deal with a lot of stuff from my own late adolescence that I had been neatly avoiding for so long, and that has made it all much harder to work through.

I always hate rewrites, but this time they do seem to have been rather like squeezing blood from a stone. There’s been a lot of lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. (This earned me very peculiar looks from a stranger who walked into my office in error. He looked as if he’d accidentally broken into the asylum. I’ve since taken to locking the door…).

The Distant Echo – Extract:


1978: St Andrews, Scotland

Four in the morning, the dead of December. Four bleary outlines wavered in the snow flurries that drifted at the beck and call of the snell north-easterly wind whipping across the North Sea from the Urals. The eight stumbling feet of the self-styled Laddies fi’ Kirkcaldy traced the familiar path of their short cut over Hallow Hill to Fife Park, the most modern of the halls of residence attached to St Andrews University, where their perpetually unmade beds yawned a welcome, lolling tongues of sheets and blankets trailing to the floors.
The conversation staggered along lines as habitual as their route. ‘I’m telling you, Bowie is the king,’ Sigmund Malkiewicz slurred loudly, his normally impassive face loosened with drink. A few steps behind him, Alex Gilbey yanked the hood of his parka closer to his face and giggled inwardly as he silently mouthed the reply he knew would come.
‘Bollocks,’ said Davey Kerr. ‘Bowie’s just a big jessie. Pink Floyd can run rings round Bowie any day of the week. Dark Side of the Moon, that’s an epic. Bowie’s done nothing to touch that.’ His long dark curls were loosening under the weight of melted snowflakes and he pushed them back impatiently from his waif-like face.
And they were off. Like wizards casting combative spells at each other, Sigmund and Davey threw song titles, lyrics and guitar riffs back and forth in the ritual dance of an argument they’d been having for the past six or seven years. It didn’t matter that, these days, the music rattling the windows of their student rooms was more likely to come from the Clash, the Jam or the Skids. Even their nicknames spoke of their early passions. From the very first afternoon they’d congregated in Alex’s bedroom after school to listen to his purchase of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, it had been inevitable that the charismatic Sigmund would be Ziggy, the leper messiah, for eternity. And the others would have to settle for being the Spiders. Alex had become Gilly, in spite of his protestations that it was a jessie nickname for someone who aspired to the burly build of a rugby player. But there was no arguing with the accident of his surname. And none of them had a moment’s doubt about the appropriateness of christening the fourth member of their quartet Weird. Because Tom Mackie was weird, make no mistake about it. The tallest in their year, his long gangling limbs even looked like a mutation, matching a personality that delighted in being perverse.
That left Davey, loyal to the cause of the Floyd, steadfastly refusing to accept any nickname from the Bowie canon. For a while, he’d been known half-heartedly as Pink, but from the first time they’d all heard ‘Shine on, You Crazy Diamond’ there had been no further debate; Davey was a crazy diamond, right enough, flashing fire in unpredictable directions, edgy and uncomfortable out of the right setting. Diamond soon became Mondo, and Mondo Davey Kerr had remained through the remaining year of high school and on to university.
Alex shook his head in quiet amazement. Even through the blur of far too much beer, he wondered at the glue that had held the four of them fast all those years. The very thought provoked a warm glow that kept the vicious cold at bay as he tripped over a raised root smothered under the soft blanket of snow. ‘Bugger,’ he grumbled, cannoning into Weird, who gave him a friendly shove that sent Alex sprawling. Flailing to keep his balance, he let his momentum carry him forward and stumbled up the short slope, suddenly exhilarated with the feel of the snow against his flushed skin. As he reached the summit, he hit an unexpected dip that pulled the feet from under him. Alex found himself crashing head over heels to the ground.
His fall was broken by something soft. Alex struggled to sit up, pushing against whatever it was he had landed on. Spluttering snow, he wiped his eyes with his tingling fingers, breathing hard through his nose in a bid to clear it of the freezing melt. He glanced around to see what had cushioned his landing just as the heads of his three companions appeared on the hillside to gloat over his farcical calamity.
Even in the eerie dimness of snow light, he could see that the bulwark against his fall was no botanical feature. The outline of a human form was unmistakable. The heavy white flakes began to melt as soon as they landed, allowing Alex to see it was a woman, the wet tendrils of her dark hair spread against the snow in Medusa locks. Her skirt was pushed up to her waist, her knee-length black boots looking all the more incongruous against her pale legs. Strange dark patches stained her flesh and the pale blouse that clung to her chest. Alex stared uncomprehendingly for a long moment, then he looked at his hands and saw the same darkness contaminating his own skin.
Blood. The realization dawned at the same instant that the snow in his ears melted and allowed him to hear the faint but stertorous wheeze of her breath.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Alex stuttered, trying to scramble away from the horror that he had stumbled into. But he kept banging into what felt like little stone walls as he squirmed backwards. ‘Jesus Christ.’ He looked up desperately, as if the sight of his companions would break this spell and make it all go away. He glanced back at the nightmare vision in the snow. It was no drunken hallucination. It was the real thing. He turned again to his friends. ‘There’s a lassie up here,’ he shouted.
Weird Mackie’s voice floated back eerily. ‘Lucky bastard.’
‘No, stop messing, she’s bleeding.’
Weird’s laughter split the night. ‘No’ so lucky after all, Gilly.’
Alex felt sudden rage well up in him. ‘I’m not fucking joking. Get up here. Ziggy, come on, man.’
Now they could hear the urgency in Alex’s voice. Ziggy in the lead as always, they wallowed through the snow to the crest of the hill. Ziggy took the slope at a jerky run, Weird plunged headlong towards Alex, and Mondo brought up the rear, cautiously planting one foot in front of the other.
Weird ended up diving head over heels, landing on top of Alex and driving them both on top of the woman’s body. They thrashed around, trying to free themselves, Weird giggling inanely. ‘Hey, Gilly, this must be the closest you’ve ever got to a woman.’
‘You’ve had too much fucking dope,’ Ziggy said angrily, pulling him away and crouching down beside the woman, feeling for a pulse in her neck. It was there, but it was terrifyingly weak. Apprehension turned him instantly sober as he took in what he was seeing in the dim light. He was only a final-year medical student, but he knew life-threatening injury when he saw it.
Weird leaned back on his haunches and frowned. ‘Hey, man, you know where this is?’ Nobody was paying him any attention, but he continued anyway. ‘It’s the Pictish cemetery. These humps in the snow, like wee walls? That’s the stones they used like coffins. Fuck, Alex found a body in the cemetery.’ And he began to giggle, an uncanny sound in the snow-muffled air.
‘Shut the fuck up, Weird.’ Ziggy continued to run his hands over her torso, feeling the unnerving give of a deep wound under his searching fingers. He cocked his head to one side, trying to examine her more clearly. ‘Mondo, got your lighter?’
Mondo moved forward reluctantly and produced his Zippo. He flicked the wheel and moved the feeble light at arm’s length over the woman’s body and up towards her face. His free hand covered his mouth, ineffectually stifling a groan. His blue eyes widened in horror and the flame trembled in his grasp.
Ziggy inhaled sharply, the planes of his face eerie in the shivering light. ‘Shit,’ he gasped. ‘It’s Rosie from the Lammas Bar.’
Alex didn’t think it was possible to feel worse. But Ziggy’s words were like a punch to his heart. With a soft moan, he turned away and vomited a mess of beer, crisps and garlic bread into the snow.
‘We’ve got to get help,’ Ziggy said firmly. ‘She’s still alive, but she won’t be for long in this state. Weird, Mondo – get your coats off.’ As he spoke, he was stripping off his own sheepskin jacket and wrapping it gently round Rosie’s shoulders. ‘Gilly, you’re the fastest. Go and get help. Get a phone. Get somebody out of their bed if you have to. Just get them here, right? Alex?’
Dazed, Alex forced himself to his feet. He scrambled back down the slope, churning the snow beneath his boots as he fought for purchase. He emerged from the straggle of trees into the streetlights that marked the newest cul-de-sac in the new housing estate that had sprung up over the past half-dozen years. Back the way they’d come, that was the quickest route.
Alex tucked his head down and set off at a slithering run up the middle of the road, trying to lose the image of what he’d just witnessed. It was as impossible as maintaining a steady pace on the powdery snow. How could that grievous thing among the Pictish graves be Rosie from the Lammas Bar? They’d been in there drinking that very evening, cheery and boisterous in the warm yellow glow of the public bar, knocking back pints of Tennent’s, making the most of the last of their university freedom before they had to return to the stifling constraints of family Christmases thirty miles down the road.
He’d been speaking to Rosie himself, flirting with her in the clumsy way of twenty-one-year-olds uncertain whether they’re still daft boys or mature men of the world. Not for the first time, he’d asked her what time she was due to finish. He’d even told her whose party they were going on to. He’d scribbled the address down on the back of a beer mat and pushed it across the damp wooden bar towards her. She’d given him a pitying smile and picked it up. He suspected it had probably gone straight in the bucket. What would a woman like Rosie want with a callow lad like him, after all? With her looks and her figure, she could take her pick, go for somebody who could show her a good time, not some penniless student trying to eke his grant out till his holiday job stacking supermarket shelves.
So how could that be Rosie lying bleeding in the snow on Hallow Hill? Ziggy must have got it wrong, Alex insisted to himself as he veered left, heading for the main road. Anybody could get confused in the flickering glow of Mondo’s Zippo. And it wasn’t as if Ziggy had ever paid much attention to the dark-haired barmaid. He’d left that to Alex himself and Mondo. It must just be some poor lassie that looked like Rosie. That would be it, he reassured himself. A mistake, that’s what it was.
Alex hesitated for a moment, catching his breath and wondering where to run. There were plenty of houses nearby, but none of them was showing a light. Even if he could rouse someone, Alex doubted whether anyone would be inclined to open their door to a sweaty youth smelling of drink in the middle of a blizzard.
Then he remembered. This time of night, there was regularly a police car parked up by the main entrance to the Botanic Gardens a mere quarter of a mile away. They’d seen it often enough when they’d been staggering home in the small hours of the morning, aware of the car’s single occupant giving them the once-over as they attempted to act sober for his benefit. It was a sight that always set Weird off on one of his rants about how corrupt and idle the police were. ‘Should be out catching the real villains, nailing the grey men in suits that rip the rest of us off, not sitting there all night with a flask of tea and a bag of scones, hoping to score some drunk peeing in a hedge or some eejit driving home too fast. Idle bastards.’ Well, maybe tonight Weird would get part of his wish. Because it looked like tonight the idle bastard in the car would get more than he bargained for.
Alex turned towards the Canongate and began to run again, the fresh snow creaking beneath his boots. He wished he’d kept up his rugby training as a stitch seized his side, turning his rhythm into a lopsided hop and skip as he fought to pull enough air into his lungs. Only a few dozen more yards, he told himself. He couldn’t stop now, when Rosie’s life might depend on his speed. He peered ahead, but the snow was falling more heavily now and he could barely see further than a couple of yards.
He was almost upon the police car before he saw it. Even as relief flooded his perspiring body, apprehension clawed at his heart. Sobered by shock and exertion, Alex realized he bore no resemblance to the sort of respectable citizen who normally reported a crime. He was dishevelled and sweaty, bloodstained and staggering like a half-shut knife. Somehow, he had to convince the policeman who was already halfway out of his panda car that he was neither imagining things nor playing some kind of prank. He slowed to a halt a couple of feet from the car, trying not to look like a threat, waiting for the driver to emerge.
The policeman set his cap straight on his short dark hair. His head was cocked to one side as he eyed Alex warily. Even masked by the heavy uniform anorak, Alex could see the tension in his body. ‘What’s going on, son?’ he asked. In spite of the diminutive form of address, he didn’t look much older than Alex himself, and he possessed an air of unease that sat ill with his uniform.
Alex tried to control his breathing, but failed. ‘There’s a lassie on Hallow Hill,’ he blurted out. ‘She’s been attacked. She’s bleeding really badly. She needs help.’
The policeman narrowed his eyes against the snow, frowning. ‘She’s been attacked, you say. How do you know that?’
‘She’s got blood all over her. And …’ Alex paused for thought. ‘She’s not dressed for the weather. She’s not got a coat on. Look, can you get an ambulance or a doctor or something? She’s really hurt, man.’
‘And you just happened to find her in the middle of a blizzard, eh? Have you been drinking, son?’ The words were patronizing, but the voice betrayed anxiety.
Alex didn’t imagine this was the kind of thing that happened often in the middle of the night in douce, suburban St Andrews. Somehow he had to convince this plod that he was serious. ‘Of course I’ve been drinking,’ he said, his frustration spilling over. ‘Why else would I be out at this time in the morning? Look, me and my pals, we were taking a short cut back to halls and we were messing about and I ran up the top of the hill and tripped and landed right on top of her.’ His voice rose in a plea. ‘Please. You’ve got to help. She could die out there.’
The policeman studied him for what felt like minutes, then leaned into his car and launched into an unintelligible conversation over the radio. He stuck his head out of the door. ‘Get in. We’ll drive up to Trinity Place. You better not be playing the goat, son,’ he said grimly.
The car fishtailed up the street, tyres inadequate for the conditions. The few cars that had travelled the road earlier had left tracks that were now only faint depressions in the smooth white surface, testament to the heaviness of the snowfall. The policeman swore under his breath as he avoided skidding into a lamppost at the turning. At the end of Trinity Place, he turned to Alex. ‘Come on then, show me where she is.’
Alex set off at a trot, following his own rapidly disappearing tracks in the snow. He kept glancing back to check the policeman was still in his wake. He nearly went headlong at one point, his eyes taking a few moments to adjust to the greater darkness where the streetlights were cut off by the tree trunks. The snow seemed to cast its own strange light over the landscape, exaggerating the bulk of bushes and turning the path into a narrower ribbon than it normally appeared. ‘It’s this way,’ Alex said, swerving off to the left. A quick look over his shoulder reassured him that his companion was right behind him.
The policeman hung back. ‘Are you sure you’re no’ on drugs, son?’ he said suspiciously.
‘Come on,’ Alex shouted urgently as he caught sight of the dark shapes above him. Without waiting to see if the policeman was following, Alex hurried up the slope. He was almost there when the young officer overtook him, brushing past and stopping abruptly a few feet short of the small group.
Ziggy was still hunkered down beside the woman’s body, his shirt plastered to his slim torso with a mixture of snow and sweat. Weird and Mondo stood behind him, arms folded across their chests, hands tucked in their armpits, heads thrust down between their raised shoulders. They were only trying to stay warm in the absence of coats, but they presented an unfortunate image of arrogance.
‘What’s going on here, then, lads?’ the policeman asked, his voice an aggressive attempt to stamp authority in spite of the greater weight of numbers arrayed against him.
Ziggy pushed himself wearily to his feet and shoved his wet hair out of his eyes. ‘You’re too late. She’s dead.’

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