When he casually told me not so long ago that he wondered if his father had been a drug dealer, I might have seen it as a proper story my journalistic career thus far had denied me. Perhaps if I hadn't been investigatively intrigued I'd have met his comment with scepticism and saw it as all the more improbable a claim as I had met his father on two occasions, several years apart, and the last time, a couple of years before his death. He didn't seem to possess the profile or the personality of a drug dealer, but then again that may have been because I knew nothing about the profession except televisual preconceptions, and I suppose once someone becomes a successful dealer in drugs they no longer looked like a peddler of substances but a businessman, a bank manager, a lawyer. They were no longer drug-dealing but perhaps money laundering. A comfortably off businessman is how I would have described Walker's father if I were to have met him without knowing what he did. He wore a suit and tie both times I saw him, and was a businessman, running amongst other things a taxi firm in a coastal town in the North West of Scotland. The first time we met was when four of us from the flat hired a car and visited the Highlands during the first summer at university. Walker expressed surprise when all three of his flatmates, including me, admitted they had never been further north than Perth, and so I and the two others travelled up with him to Glencoe, on to Loch Ness, through to Inverness and took in also the Black Isle and Skye. Our literal high point was the West Coast village. My memory was that the town didn't really have a centre but chiefly a front, a bustling, hectic ferry port that at the same time was sleepy and calm, with numerous people determined and fretful over ferry times and accommodation, and others, I suppose the locals, who were happy to retain their equilibrium no matter the influx of internationals that they knew would be fading away in a couple of months.
It was how Walker's father described the place when we met him in a shorefront cafe that he seemed to own but whose manager gently chided him for his general absence. He comes in here when he wants to socialise, the manager said, but get him to do a shift in the place: impossible. Walker's dad took it well, even seemed to like the idea that his employees could lecture him about his laziness, a sign perhaps of the man who has made it so good he needn't work for a living, or a man who knew that conviviality was more important than striving. Both characteristics were present that day, and we all sat for a couple of hours as he regaled us with stories of his time as a young man living in London. He talked about the various customers who came into his shop when he owned a television repair business in Kilburn. He said there were customers from Irish republicans with links to the IRA to Geordie gangsters, from friends to family members. People would come in and, though it was a repair shop, sometimes it felt like a cafe which may have been why he knew eventually he would open the latter. In the shop in London, he made tea or coffee for people who came in, waiting until he finished fixing the TV he enjoyed that he said, working away on the repairs, fiddling with wires and checking cathode tubes. I asked him if he ever felt scared, given some of the clientele. He looked at me, I now recall, with a glance that might have been deemed suspicious, that he was wondering where my question happened to be coming from. It was an innocent query but perhaps offered to a guilty party if what Walker believed was correct. But he then quickly smiled and said that in London in the early seventies everybody seemed to know everyone. That must have been an exaggeration, I thought, but I had also read it was a moment in time when not only had the gap between classes weakened but even between polite and impolite society. I remember seeing pictures of Lord Boothby with the singer Cliff Richard, and Boothby and Reggie Kray in another; that the painter Lucian Freud owed the Krays money and that the actor Michael Caine could be seen in the same discotheque as the criminal twins.
Maybe Walker's father found my question impertinent because it was a question at all. My purpose was to be an anonymous friend of Walker's, someone who could sit and listen to his father's anecdotal offerings. As Walker said, months later, when we were well into our second year at university, his father wasn't used to being asked direct questions, especially by strangers and people half his age. He probably thought it a bit impertinent but Walker admired me for it, he said, and now, more recently, when he started wondering if his father was a drug dealer, wished he had been more enquiring himself. He said it made sense I would go on to become a journalist, even if he knew I was too rarely given the chance to investigate various instances of corruption.
My job was indeed often frustrating, reporting on issues as though they were simple news items when I suspected behind them were proper scandals. One concerned a hospital (near Walker's flat) I believed was sold off well under the asking price but the newspaper said that I had only to report the facts: and the facts were those offered in a press release by the company who bought the place, intending to turn it into luxury homes. The price they paid was so low that selling two or three penthouses on the site would recoup their initial outlay. I said to the editor that there was a story behind this worth investigating but the paper insisted I just report it; in other words, don't enquire further than the chosen information the firm buying the site provided. In some parts of the world, journalists' lives are endangered but they would seem to be at risk only based on the enquiries they insisted on pursuing. The journalists' nerves are no doubt on edge and over the years I have shown too much fascination perhaps in reading about these journalists in Russia, Mexico and Turkey, following the suspense in their reporting that has sitting behind it their possible and in some cases eventual death. I have never felt at risk in my profession but I don't know if that is because I live in a country where reporters feel much more protected or whether I am expected to retreat from enquiring into what I see as examples of corruption or injustice. Sometimes the nerves can get a little on edge out of frustration, out of feeling that I am sometimes not reporting news but relating its manufactured content. Often I am aware there isn't enough evidence to pursue a case without lawyers on mine, determined to protect their clients long before it becomes an issue in a court of law. My paper claims it is not rich, and I am technically after all a reporter rather than an investigative journalist.
Yet when Walker told me his father was a potential drug dealer, without ever mentioning it before, I saw a story I could enquire into without worrying about lawyers or clients, and though I was initially sceptical about Walker's claims, I was intrigued by what led Walker to make them and thought also of that second meeting with his father.
On that first meeting in the village, his father was convivial except when I asked the question. And with the asking, he wasn't rude or dismissive but he did seem momentarily wary, and it was that wariness I found more in evidence when he came to visit the flat I was sharing with Walker and others here in Edinburgh. He had travelled up from London via Leicester and Liverpool and said he had intended to stay the night at either of the latter but various circumstances wouldn't allow it. He said no more than that but I recall he seemed harried and fretful, even vulnerable, while when I first met him I witnessed a man relaxed in the environment and keen to share in his hospitality. Maybe he didn't feel comfortable relying on his son to put him up for the night and this was exacerbated by Walker giving him his bedroom while Walker slept on the couch. It was a nice and decent gesture but if the room was in its usual condition (and the condition of all the others in the flat, where cleaning was always a future project) then it was understandable this elegantly dressed man would have been a little dismayed staying in so messy a place. But I remember wondering why he didn't book into a hotel and assumed he would have done so if he had known the place was going to be as untidy as it was. Yet he didn't comment on the mess at all, except in an aside proposing it best if he and Walker eat out. His father said I was welcome too, since it was my hospitality he was abusing as well, and I suppose he would have invited our two other flatmates also if they had been around at the time.
During the meal at an Indian restaurant he said couldn't match the selection in Leicester, but wasn't bad for a Scottish city, he remained tense and irritable, as though that momentary look he gave me in the village cafe when I asked a question, was permeating the atmosphere now. But by the time we had finished our starters he became convivial, his mood presumably based on hunger, and over the main course and the coffees, and the dessert Walker had, he told us of an event a few years earlier in the village. Walker and his sister would both still have been in primary school, and the family had been there for only a couple of years. His TV shop was making very little money. The town had a population of only 1,500. He closed the store and opened another one in Inverness but the distance between the two places was 57 miles and he didn't want to travel for two and a half hours every day. He worked in the shop a couple of days a week and employed two lads who knew a bit about televisions - and learnt a lot more after a couple of months of training. In the meantime, he started a taxi firm in the village, aware that there were only solitary drivers and in the summer he had heard people were always looking for cabs, and that sometimes the drivers were erratic and unreliable.
That was where he made much of his money, before expanding into owning a cafe, and a bar and continued owning the television shop, even if, when it also became a video store, it made cash chiefly that way. While his father told me this, Walker looked bored having heard most of it before and having lived a chunk of the experience too. I ventured another question, perhaps to give a bit of variety to the telling so Walker wouldn't feel he was hearing the same thing exactly as before. I asked his father why he kept the TV repair business going at all; why didn't he just rent videos? He looked at me with an admiring expression, as though measuring me up, wondering if my question had a point behind it or whether it was an idle enquiry. I thought at the time it was no more than a practical one: surely by the nineties, few people bothered getting their TVs repaired wasn't this the age of built-in obsolescence? As I spoke, he seemed to be deciding whether to tell us something or not, a story I later found out that Walker had known nothing about.
His father said after that first summer when he set up the taxi firm, with three drivers including himself, and a tiny office on Shore Street, right across from the bay, he managed to make both money and enemies. He never found out who broke into his TV shop in Inverness but he was sure it was someone who didn't like him making money in the village. Maybe it was one of the taxi drivers whose business they felt he had stolen, but he believed it was more organised than that; someone or some people he suspected wanted to start a taxi business in the village and he had got there before them. A dozen TVs were smashed in or smashed up; screens with a sledgehammer hole in them; others with the backs kicked in. There was one vintage TV with a wooden case that someone had tried to saw open. It was the saw that made him think these were people who were hired thugs and at the same time local handymen. But local from where? They didn't destroy all the televisions (there were another thirty), but it was as if they got bored or exhausted and thought they had done enough damage for one day. He told the story of the wrecked televisions with irony in the telling but with fret on his face. It seemed something was bothering him and I wondered if he had told the same anecdote the first time we met whether he would have told it in quite the same way. The story seemed to me to have an aspect of comedy in the telling but he told it more as tragedy than farce.
His father continued the story, saying he found it ironic that the job was probably undertaken by gangsters who thought they were big-time next to a sole businessman who owned a taxi office in the village and a television shop in Inverness, while he had known, and still knew, gangsters of some renown in London. He let it be known in Inverness and the village that he had connections to the London underworld and he never received any trouble after that. Again, though, I had the feeling when he offered this detail before, it was with humour, and this time the humour was missing.
I might not have thought much about it again but, when Walker told me he believed his father had been involved in drugs, my initial surprise became less so as we talked. As he asked me about what I remembered of his father, I scanned my mind and said that while I didn't know what to make of the story he told us about the break-in, it seemed to be delivered in a tone I didn't expect. I might have assumed he would tell it with more humour, the sort of humour he offered when I first met him.
As we talked, I of course asked Walker what instigated this assumption, and he said it had been an occasional thought ever since the funeral several years earlier, when two different friends of his father, one from London, another from Leicester, offered what appeared like asides of no great importance. The one from London, Jack, said that people are strangers to you and before you really get to know them they have gone. He added that even your own children don't really know you. The one from Leicester, Jason, said that he would miss him; he said Walker's father was always generous. Whenever he needed to stay the night he paid for everything; the meals, the drinks, whatever anybody wanted. Walker found it strange that he used the word need. His father was wealthy enough to stay in hotels; why did he need to stay at this friend's place? There were other places that Walker knew his father stayed in, and the reason he rarely stayed at Walker's, and the reason I only met him in the flat once, was that usually his dad would pass from London, to Leicester, to Liverpool to Glasgow, and then straight up to the Highlands, taking the West coast route through Loch Lomond.
When he started thinking about this, Walker said, his father's life seemed clandestine and harried, even if there was nothing to indicate in the village that he was anything but public and popular: a man who never stood for public office but was involved in various associations in the Highlands supporting and promoting small businesses. Yet wondering about his father's trips through the UK, he would muse over the possible nature of his illegal activity, if illegal activity it was, and also of an occasion where Walker went down to London with his father and he and his father stayed in the capital, Leicester, stopped off briefly in Liverpool, and carried on up to Glasgow where he left his father and took a train back to Edinburgh. He remembered being surprised his father didn't continue through to Edinburgh and Walker said he joked about this, saying he couldn't believe his dad had anything so important to do in Glasgow that was more important than dropping him off at home.
His father looked at him with perhaps scorn, even contempt, but with a look that Walker would now think was a gaze at the naive. It was on that trip, Walker remembered staying for a weekend at Jack's place near London. It was a town called Radlett, not far from Watford, and for most of the weekend Walker was there alone, enjoying the large garden, a small swimming pool and a kitchen with an island in the centre, and numerous modern appliances that he played with and where he recalled for the first time making a smoothie. The friend's wife and his kids were away: it was the summer holidays and they were in a house they had recently bought in Province. Jack was going to join them in a couple of days. Jack and his dad left early Saturday morning and didn't come back until late that night, left again the next morning before Walker awoke, and again didn't return till late on Sunday evening. During those two days, he felt like a person under lazy house arrest, aware that he couldn't have just taken off to London, or got a train back to Edinburgh, but felt free to stroll around the garden, go to the shops in the village, and even take an early evening pint, sitting outside in the beer garden.
Throughout the weekend, his father's Jaguar remained in the driveway; they had taken Jack's Range Rover (he also had a BMW) and each night when they returned, they transferred televisions from the Range Rover to the Jag. There were six by the time they went up the road, four in the boot and two in the back seats. The ones in the back seat were deposited at Jason's place in Leicester, a terraced brick house that he shared with a couple of other young professionals. Jason was closer to Walker's age than Walker's father, and had worked for a couple of summers on the cabs for his dad and knew the boy his sister would go on to marry, Sam. Sam, Jason and his father shared a complicity that Walker never understood but knew he was excluded from, and that evening in Leicester around eight of them went out to an Indian restaurant. His father and Jason were at one end of the table and Walker at the other. He enjoyed the conversation he was having with one of Jason's flatmates, who was a social worker, and who was discussing how so many of the criminal problems in the city were drug problems: that decriminalising drugs might help save the city a lot of money; even make money if they taxed the drugs. He remembered at one moment looking over at his father and Jason and wondered what they were discussing, and sensed that if he were to join them he wouldn't have been welcome.
On the way back up to Glasgow the next day they carried on across to Liverpool and stayed for no more than half an hour. They dropped off two of the televisions and picked up four more. Walker reckoned the two people his father was meeting at the docks weren't happy seeing Walker there as well, as though this wasn't part of the deal, though he didn't recall thinking at the time of the deal as a drugs one and that if he had, it would have been an idle rather than an active speculation.
I asked him what he thought happened to be the difference, thinking of my own profession and how often I seemed engaged in idle stories rather than active ones. He said that it may have been possible that these men with whom his father was buying and selling televisions were involved in various suspect dealings including drugs but he wouldn't have linked this to his father, London and Leicester. He wouldn't have thought while Jack and his father left him alone in a big house on the outskirts of London that they were doing a deal that would allow Jack to continue living in so grand a house, own a BMW and a Range Rover, and also have a house in Province. He could have thought, he supposed, his father was lower down the gang rung than Jack, but still comfortable enough to own a five-bedroom house in the village, a small flat in Inverness and put down also a hefty deposit for Walker's place in Edinburgh. It wasn't that certain things didn't occur to him; it was that he didn't assume interconnections.
I said that for me idle thoughts professionally were press-release stories, where you added a few words of your own, tidied up the poor delivery in the release and put it in the newspaper as a story with your name on it. Many stories were like this but if I were to have pursued, for example, the story about the hospital, I probably would have searched out further anomalies, other places in Edinburgh that had been sold more cheaply than I think they were worth, perhaps investigated various companies that seemed to be getting land and property from councils and other public bodies cheaply, and see if there were any connections between individuals who may have known each other even if they were working for ostensibly opposite sides. Were there businessmen who knew counsellors and helped sales go through? It is not my job here to cast aspersions, only to say that over the last few years there have been stories that I have been idly rather than actively involved in, and while I didn't expect Walker's claims to become a story I could publish in any newspaper, it activated my investigative thoughts as no story I have published.
After Liverpool, they carried on driving up to Glasgow and his father dropped him off near Queen Street station with what Walker would retrospectively see as a sense of relief if indeed his father was involved in the drugs trade. When Walker said this it made me wonder why his father had taken him on the trip at all. Why would a drug-dealing dad take his son around the country while trying to hide his dealing from him? The answer Walker had at the time would be weak if the dealing were true: that his father wanted company. It was a long trip, and after his father picked him up they made their way directly to London by sharing the driving, and on the way between London and Leicester, Walker drove. Perhaps, Walker said, his father needed to get to London directly and having a co-driver made that easier than if he were to drive down himself. He didn't seem at first convinced by this when saying it to me: Edinburgh to London wouldn't have taken more than eight hours with a half-hour break and a strong coffee, it was possible. Yet, he also recalled that his father would have been driving for about four hours from the village to Edinburgh. If he had to get to London that night, he needed a co-driver. Perhaps his father had hoped to find a co-driver in someone he knew in Glasgow, couldn't find anybody available and took Walker instead, he proposed. I said that his father was in a hurry sounded plausible: I remembered that his father didn't come in for a tea, and that I supposed he waited with the car running as Walker went out to meet him.
I asked Walker what he made of Jack and Jason and he said at the time, during that trip, he did wonder how Jack had become so wealthy. He assumed like another of his father's friends, Alasdair, Jack was working in the city, involved in high-end financial transactions. When on the way back up the road he asked his father how Jack managed to afford such a nice house, and a lot else besides, his father said he worked in finance. Walker said a bit like Alasdair he supposed, and his father perhaps too hastily agreed. Alasdair came up most summers to the Highlands, had a house near the village, and got to know his father as a fellow Londoner enjoying the area. If Walker had thought about it he wouldn't have been happy with his father's reply but he didn't think about it. Now, he would ask his father what type of job did Jack do; how did it differ from Alasdair's? But then perhaps he had sensed in his dad's reply an unwillingness to say anything else, that his absent question contained what would have been a refusal on his father's part to answer it. He didn't know.
That was the only occasion Walker travelled down with his father to pick up televisions but he knew his father would make the trip two or three times a year, and knew too that numerous televisions cluttered up the second garage, leaving Walker wondering, again too idly, why his father travelled to London picking up televisions that he hardly ever sold. He supposed that it was a nostalgia for the television business, and a determination to feel that his former profession hadn't become obsolete. Recently, while speculating over his father as a possible drug runner or dealer he looked up the prices of old televisions online and some were fetching well over a thousand pounds. How much would he get for them then, and would it have been enough to justify the trips?
I admitted that going to all this effort to buy televisions that mainly went unused and unsold, taking up space in a garage, suggested a purpose beyond the apparent, and while I didn't want to claim this clinched the supposition that his dad was involved in drugs, I had to admit that travelling the country picking up televisions that seemed to have no apparent purpose might have led someone to wonder what hidden role they served. I asked him if he had discussed this with anyone else and he said no; that I had been the only person; I was a friend, a journalist and I had met his father. How his mother and sister would react if he were to speak to them about it he didn't know but he wondered how close he already happened to be in speaking ill of the dead. With me, he had been speculating on the dead, and there he would be doing so again with his father's daughter and the man's ex-wife. Would he, in speaking to them about this, be trying to convince them of his father's culpability, or to find from his sister and his mother reasons why his hypothesis was untenable?
I didn't see Walker again for several months. I had moved to Glasgow and so we saw each other far less frequently, or perhaps more conveniently: he sometimes came through for work; he had an antique shop on Newington with his wife and came looking for stuff at the auctions on Dumbarton Rd. I occasionally covered stories that required my presence in Edinburgh, and instead of taking a hotel, I opted for a 'Bed and Breakfast', staying at theirs for the night and spending the money on a meal out for the three of us. It was one such evening, after we got back from the restaurant, after Sasha went off to bed, that I asked him about his drug-dealing dad. It was a facetious enquiry in keeping I thought with the tone in which we had discussed it before. But Walker's face looked grave when I said it, and I supposed there had been developments.
He said that he had talked to both his sister and his mother when he was last up in the village, a few weeks earlier. His sister's husband, Sam, worked on the boats and they took care of the pottery shop that Walker's mother had owned for thirty years. His sister was closer to her mother than she had ever been to her father and so he didn't expect so strong a reaction when they were sitting in her house in the mid-afternoon before the kids were back from school, and he asked her if she ever wondered if their father had been involved in selling drugs. She immediately said such a thought was besmirching his name and that obviously it was also idiotic. He rarely fell out with his sister, whose personality was as phlegmatic as his own, but his remark was met with a furious denial that might have seemed justifiable if she had been closer to him than to her mother: when their parents separated (they never divorced), she was fourteen and moved into the flat above the pottery with her mum; Walker, who was twelve, stayed in the house with his father. If anyone might have been implicated in the story he was telling, she said, it would have been him not her. She said that there he was spinning stories, disrespecting their father's name for no reason that she could see, and why couldn't he leave their dead father alone. He didn't know what sort of reaction he expected but it wasn't the one he received, and he was especially shocked when she asked him to leave. The children would be back soon and she didn't need their uncle sullying their grandfather's good name.
It was only the second time he ever recalled falling out with his sister; the first was when they were asked to choose who they wished to live with when their parents' separated. After she said she wanted to live with their mother, he said that he wanted to live with his father, if for no better reason than he couldn't have imagined where he would stay in the small flat his mother had bought. Bess's bedroom was a box room with a skylight; his would have been the sitting room couch. Bess said that he was being disloyal; that their mother had brought them up while his father was often away (in Inverness) and there he was staying with him. She may have defended her mother before and her father now, but the common denominator was loyalty. Walker could have left it there, but Bess's reaction seemed so strong that he thought he should talk to his mother about it.
His mother still lived above the shop and while he had expected to stay in his sister's house, which had far more space, he found himself staying in Bess' old room, an odd feeling given the fallout. When he asked his mother the evening after the argument with Bess, she appeared already to know what he was talking about, but he couldn't quite work out whether this was because Bess had discussed it with her (they had been working together in the shop that morning), or if his mother had been waiting for years for this conversation, that she left his father knowing how he was making much of his money, and wondered if and when her children would find out. She said to him his father was sometimes an enigma, that he knew people, when they were still living in London, that she would have preferred he didn't know, and one reason why they moved to the Highlands was so that he wouldn't have to see them anymore. She didn't say whether this was her decision or his and Walker couldn't seem to ask certain questions. If with his sister it rested on an overreaction that insisted nothing more could be discussed; with his mother, it seemed to be a reserve that suggested she didn't know and perhaps wished not to know. She may have left on a hunch rather than over a fact and if Walker wanted to know about the latter she wasn't going to be of much help.
Yet Walker wondered if in the combination of the reactions there wasn't an aspect in common; that his mother and his sister saw Walker as naive. He stayed for longer than he intended, until Sam came back from a few days out on the boat, and while he may have thought he was doing so because he didn't want to leave the village without making up with his sister, he also wanted to find out what was behind his sister's reaction.
Sam had always been friendly with Walker even if they had never been friends, never once suggested to each other that they go for a drink alone or found themselves in discussion with each other when there were other options at a party or a family gathering. When he came into the pub, two doors along from the pottery, the day after coming back from sea, and saw Walker seated at the bar, he shouted his order and took a seat in the enclave where Walked wouldn't be able to see him. Had he seen Walker as he came in? Walker couldn't be sure: when someone comes into a bar they usually see a blur of faces; when someone sees someone coming in they see a distinct person. But the bar was quiet and, apart from Walker, only one other person was sitting by the counter. Walker thought of going over to say hello but sensed that even if Sam hadn't seen him that didn't mean he would have wished to say hi if he had. His sister had probably talked about the fallout and, since it, Walker had ruminated over the possibility that her overreaction may have rested on more than a daughter's love for her father; that she was protecting more than his late reputation.
Walker looked directly at me as he said this, as though trying to detect in my face a flicker of amusement at best and dismay at worst. I found the idea of his father as a drug dealer surprising; that his sister was involved, had even continued the dealing that his father has instigated, the stuff of long-form television, where a second series can incorporate the next generation. His sister's reaction though was, he insisted, protective of more than just her feelings towards her father, and over the following days, he discussed with his mother the financial predicament of many in the Highlands who had to try and make much of their money over the summer months and had to find a way of getting by during the winter. She was fine, she said: the flat was paid for and her pension gave her enough to live on, but many didn't have the same security and his mother would have been indirectly invoking his sister and Sam in such a remark. How did they make money to get them through the winter months? Walker's father had left his children some money, but while that had allowed for a healthy deposit on his sister and Sam's house; they still had a mortgage and also now two children.
He seemed to ask the question less because he wanted an answer from me (no doubt aware I had little idea how to answer it), nor even that he was sure if he wanted to answer it himself, but to wonder why he hadn't asked it before. His shop did well in Edinburgh, with footfall all year round, and plenty of wealthy people living in and passing through the city. He began to feel that his ignorance over his father's possible drug trafficking contained within it a broader lack of empathy towards his family's life in the Highlands. Pulling him away from guilty musings, I asked him if he did find out anything further on that trip.
He told me that he stayed for a couple of days after seeing Sam in the pub and promised himself that if he couldn't get any more out of his mother, his sister or Sam, the next time he would go up he would track Sam's movements, find out if his hunch was valid; that the dealing, if there was dealing at all, would hinge on Sam's job as a fisherman. He said he went up three weeks later. He was in Inverness anyway, a friend in the town said someone along the road from him in Crown had passed away and there was going to be a house clearance. The deceased was a bachelor who retired early and for the last twenty-five years had filled what was before his mother's house with beautiful things: Persian rugs, pottery cups and plates, and art-deco furniture. There was a vintage record player and numerous records that may have been rare. He would take a look on the way down, after a couple of days further north. The house clearance thus gave him an excuse for another visit to his mother's, as he told her over the phone that he was soon to be up in Inverness and he thought he would stay a night or two at hers. He often coincided visits with possible purchases, aware that sometimes the trip wasn't worth the effort unless he fitted in some socialising as well. He hoped Sam was just off the boat when he arrived but found that he wasn't getting in until the following morning, which was perhaps even better for his investigation. If there were drugs on board then he might be able to see them getting taken off and perhaps see who he would sell them onto. He had read online that fishing boats were used for shifting drugs and probably much more so than cars driving up and down the country carrying TV sets.
Walker waited near the pier, the car parked up on a side street, and some others who were milling around were waiting for the ferry to arrive: he wouldn't have seemed conspicuous. The boat came in, and Walker knew that some hoteliers were waiting to buy fish straightaway but he sensed if any drug deal was taking place it wouldn't be done so openly, and he waited to see if Sam or any of the other members of the fishing crew would go off with a stash of fish to another destination. It was indeed Sam who loaded up a few boxes into his pick-up and drove off. Walker rushed to the car that he had persuaded his Inverness friend to lend him for reasons he didn't make clear, but wouldn't have left Sam wondering why Walker's car was behind him for a few miles. Walker didn't quite feel he had the hang of the gears (his own was an automatic), and narrow roads that he usually would have found difficult he discovered were treacherous when you didn't know well the vehicle you were driving.
He followed Sam for about twenty fives miles, into the highland interior and to a hotel where he offloaded six boxes of fish, chatted for a few minutes to the person purchasing them, and some cash passed hands. Walker was watching a hundred yards away, standing there beside and half behind a tree, having left the car at the nearest lay-by and had run as fast he could to catch the transaction. As Sam said goodbye, Walker rushed back through the woods and managed to get into his car just as Sam drove past. Sam was unlikely to have seen Walker's face and Walker assumed Sam hadn't paid much attention to the car while on the road, but he might have wondered what this car that had been behind him for a good few miles was doing parked near the hotel. He waited in the lay-by for twenty minutes before driving back to the village.
He of course reflected on what he had expected to see by following his brother-in-law. Did he expect drugs to be openly exchanged? When he travelled with his father he saw no sign of drug dealing but perhaps that was because he was there: if Walker hadn't been would the transaction have been more blatant? He realised he didn't know what he was looking for or what he was thinking; that presumably there were well-trained teams of drug experts that took months, years to track down dealers with tips-offs and high-tech and he reckoned he was going to see a deal going down by borrowing a friend's car and following Sam? True, he had the comments his father's friends had made, his sister's anger when he confronted her, and his mother's silence when he wished to find out more, but that hardly added up to a case. And what about the televisions travelling around the country, wasn't that odd? Odd he didn't doubt, but criminal?
As he told me this I wondered if he was doing so to persuade me to get more involved, that my training in investigative journalism (even if too rarely put into practice) might have been useful, or at least less useless than his efforts. But as he said, he had no interest in exposing his family, no intention in having anybody arrested. I was tempted to ask what he did want out of this enquiry. It was a question he had already been asked as he continued telling me what had happened on that last trip up north.
The evening after he followed Sam, Walker popped into the bar early: a band from the area with a small but growing reputation was playing later that evening and he wanted to make sure to get a seat. Friends in Edinburgh had told him about them after they had played a couple of gigs in the city that he had missed. He was happy to share the table but wanted to make sure he had a chair for himself; he didn't expect he would be sharing the table with Sam. Walker's mother probably told Sam where he was, and Sam asked if he could take a seat he said he ought to support his friends, though now they were doing okay they probably didn't need his attendance there to help them. But he also said he wanted to talk to Walker; that his wife (he pointedly did not say Walker's sister) was still unhappy about a few insinuations Walker made on his last visit. Sam added that he was surprised Walker had returned again so soon, and added that he supposed it was to see the band, but in a manner that made Walker wonder whether Sam knew too that he had followed him the previous day. The conversation was wary and tense as Sam said he had talked to Bess about this several times, and that she thought Walker had no right to interrogate her over her father's life when he had shown so little interest in it up until now. Sam said he chose to live in Edinburgh; he and Bess had decided to stay in the Highlands and it was none of his business how people up here made their money, just as it was none of Sam's how Walker made his. At no stage did Sam say he had nothing to do with drugs but why should he? Who was Walker to judge him even if he did, and whether Bess's reaction was defensive as well as hurt Walker admitted to me needn't be his concern?
That evening, by the end of the night, Sam and Walker were joined at the table by Bess and their mother too, and they all got drunk mainly on the whisky and gin from nearby distilleries. The band of five musicians (a singer, a drummer, a fiddler, an accordionist and a flautist), were professionally accomplished and perhaps even brilliant, but what Walker noticed most was a feeling for their audience, constantly invoking people in the pub and local places they knew well. Walker said there were moments he felt left out as he knew he wouldn't have had he watched them in Edinburgh, but he supposed it was understandable since they were playing to a home crowd and he had to accept that this was not his home. Yet by the end of the evening, he did feel welcome, and it was as though by the time the band had finished, all Walker's thoughts about his father's life as a potential drug runner seemed irrelevant, even absurd. Earlier, before Bess and his mother arrived, Sam had asked him what he was seeking to understand about his father. He said he had no right to stop him; that if Walker wanted to find out more about his father's past than Walker so far understood, that was Walker's business. But his business was to protect his wife. Walker said to me he had always found Sam oddly articulate, someone who mainly avoided conversation when he could and mumbled answers when asked a question. But on occasion, and this had been one of them, he was clear and determined, and that evening he said he believed Bess had a right to remember her father as she wished and it wasn't fair for Walker to try and get her to perceive him differently.
Walker wondered then if Bess didn't only not know that her father may have been involved in drugs, but that she didn't know her own husband may have been involved too that Sam's remarks could have been innocent or benign, keen to respect his father-in-law in the eyes of his wife, or keen to protect his own dealings in the past and possibly present, or perhaps both if the latter were so. What Walker did feel however was that he was a welcome member of the family and the community as a visitor but not as an inquisitor.
By the end of the night, Walker and Bess's mother had gone home after the music, but Bess, Walker, Sam and a few others went back to Bess and Sam's place. A while later, more people joined them, and by 130 in the morning, there were thirty people in the house, including a couple of band members, who still had their instruments with them and played, alongside a couple of others, a few classic folk songs. There were no drugs at the party as far as Walker could tell, but there was someone there from the gin distillery who had brought a couple of bottles from work. Walker left after four in the morning, relieved that he was in a small village where the walk from someone's house to home need only take a few minutes. He knew it was the alcohol making him sentimental but it hadn't made him so before: he felt he loved this village as he hadn't thought he loved it in the past. As he walked down the hill from Bess's house, turning along the seafront to his mother's, he saw for the first time in its beauty also a feeling. It was now becoming light, the sky a mixed hew of red and blue and a hint of yellow. He saw a few fishing boats setting off and the sound of gulls waking. He could smell seaweed and recall as a child stepping on it as though stomping on bubble wrap, and it was as if his childhood was opening up in front of him and inside him. There he was looking for what he had potentially failed to see in his father's life and found himself that morning discovering what he had forgotten about his youth.
As Walker described this to me, I could see he was not a little embarrassed in the telling, as months earlier he had offered me a story full of journalistic potential and ended it with something closer to fiction, poetry or even a diary entry. He said he was sorry that the tale hadn't added up to more; that once again I was to be journalistically disappointed. Nevertheless, I asked him what he believed and he said he wasn't sure but that maybe I was better placed than him to look at the skeletal structure of the tale since I didn't really know anyone involved (unless two occasions meeting his father counted, and the odd meeting with his mother and sister), and I might better be able to comprehend the circumstances with an objective eye. I said that my impression was that his father probably was involved in carting drugs from one end of the country to the other, and his wife left him either because he wouldn't stop or she suddenly found out. I also reckoned that Sam too was involved, and probably became involved through Jason, who I reckoned had before worked with Walker's father. Perhaps Sam even became a fisherman for this purpose, aware that he would have a better alibi no matter if he was making little more money than someone in the mid-nineties had selling TVs. Was Walker's sister involved? I suspected she didn't know or if she knew she was trying to get her husband to quit. But Walker had also mentioned two young children and so they probably needed the money and so for the moment she will keep quiet. Maybe his mother needed the money as well in the past and stayed with his father until she could afford to leave. From the way he had described things, there were not always so many opportunities to make a living in small highland villages, and so was it any wonder if some people relied on illegal means to make money?
As I spoke I noticed Walker's face hardening, a look of dismay that segued into a look of disgust, and a final expression that indicated I had no right to speak of his family in such a way. I believed it was probably the look his sister had on her face when he asked her about her father's possible involvement with drugs, and it may have been this expression he was trying to find in the whole convoluted process when determining his father's interests. It was as though he thought he was willing to find out more about his family than he hitherto had been able to comprehend, only to discover that what mattered much more than any truth he might find was a primal feeling he needed to protect. The expression didn't last long and perhaps he didn't notice it, for how often do we have on our faces a countenance that we cannot see? After all, when we do see our face we are usually looking in a mirror, engaged only with ourselves. Yet most of our expressions are reactions to others, our sometimes unconscious or subconscious responses blatantly visible to the people we face but remaining hidden from our own being. Was this one such instance?
Walker supposed that his mother was right. People often remain enigmatic and who are we to try and resolve these enigmas, especially when the person in this instance was dead? He said this with dispassion quite distinct from the anguish I had only a few moments earlier seen on his face but somehow consistent with it, as if he were trying to hide his feelings in what he now saw as the misguidedness of his quest. What I did know was that if I were to pursue journalism investigatively, if I wanted to become the type of journalist that would interrogate people who didn't want to be confronted, would the best place to start be in pushing my friend into awkward places he instigated? That I couldn't quite answer at the time, and this story, a compromise or a proper revelation, is the best I can do in resolving it.
© Tony McKibbin