Anne-Marie has brought her lunch outside. It’s one of those early April days when the earth offers up composty aromas and the breeze, at least for the moment, has lost its chill. She tilts her head to feel the sun’s warmth, soft on her face for the first time in months.
Unusually contented, she opens the brown cardboard box to find a mixed green salad, a small bread roll, a pat of artisan butter, a pastel de nata, and a sparkling drink. Yes, the Carse House folks know how to look after people, that’s for sure. Her meeting here last month with the trustees had gone well. The Maxwell Band was duly booked at a generous fee and now here they all are, assembled for a full rehearsal later this afternoon.
The lunch is delicious.
Afterwards, with a little time to spare, she takes one of the paths from the garden and makes her way down through the trees to the beach below. Great drifts of cockle shells have been washed up on the pebbly shore. The tide is in, and the ever-shifting light of the Solway Firth shimmers on the calm water. An oyster catcher circles overhead, warning her away with its shrill piping.
She’s been along here many times, walking parts of the coastal path with her parents, on school trips, and later hanging out with teenage pals round late-night campfires. In places the sedimentary rocks tilt at impossible angles, rock pools forming on their revealed edges. There are sea stacks, rock arches and lots of fossil possibilities. These don’t detain her today. She’s looking for a very specific and singular landmark. Rounding a small bluff she finds it.
The Devil’s Stone is a massive silver-grey granite boulder. Reputedly a mouthful taken by Satan from a nearby hill, and then spat out onto the shore, the taste not to his liking. Anne-Marie grabs some photos on her phone. She knows from her geography lessons that it’s an ‘erratic’ deposited during the departing Ice Age. Has it moved in the interim she wonders, or sat here quite still for millennia, immune to tide and storm. Bewildering, inspiring, maybe scaring some of the countless humans who have set eyes upon it?
Resting her hands on the stone mass, it’s obvious to her that this symbol of continuity in time passing, must somehow find its way into the Calendarium. There’s a millennial calendar as well as the lunar version. She pauses for a few moments, then turns away from the deserted shore and wanders slowly back to the bustle of Carse House.
The place was purchased by public subscription five years ago. Through the work of a charitable trust and with significant royal patronage, the house has been restored to full 18th century elegance. Its location is exceptional, away from the main east-west road route, on a wooded promontory looking across the waters and sand banks to the silhouetted Lakeland hills on the far side.
There are lots of people in and around the building, moving things from one place to another, setting up and testing equipment, checking on seating and staging. The Carse House management is leaving nothing to chance for the actual event in about a month’s time. The festival will be called Three Days in May and is being planned and scheduled down to the last minute.
At the centre of interest is the large and beautifully proportioned former drawing room which is now to be the permanent home for six contemporary figurative paintings. They are the work of the most commercially successful artist Scotland has ever produced. The paintings have been given to the Carse House trust by Danish entrepreneur, art lover and philanthropist, Jens Pedersen. The festival, will see the paintings on public view for the first time and also the opening of a new atrium to be used for concerts and performance events.
Notwithstanding the opulence, Anne-Marie and the band are always chilled-out in settings like this. Being a gigging musician can involve a lot of sitting about. No matter the hustle around them, they know how to relax into their own ‘down-time’ zone. In this business you get used to waiting for other people to do things. The sax and keyboard players are poised over a game of chess. The drummer is listening to music on headphones. The cellist is deep into a much-thumbed, weighty novel. The vibraphonist makes a few technical adjustments to her instrument. Anne-Marie is people-watching.
Looking around, she knows a few of the crew from other places and events. There are some people she recognises from the pages of Dumfries and Galloway Life magazine. Plus one or two folks from past liaisons, never fully realised. There are plenty of opportunities in her world to meet like-minded people, but their backstage ways don’t always fit the onstage persona. Since Sam returned to Glasgow, Anne-Marie has been happy living alone and celibate. This year is one for focussing on her career and it wouldn’t do to let love or lust get in the way.
For all that, she gives a friendly smile to an attractive lighting technician, always to be seen around these parts. Someone else she knows is talking to an odd looking middle-aged couple. They are weirdly dressed, even by the standards of an event like this. The woman has greyish-blond hair scraped back from her face, and a healthy tan. Her immaculately cut dark blue clothes look like they’re made from canvas and she has an exotic leather bag across one shoulder. The man sports a chiselled beard and is wearing a black, rather shiny suit with a fully buttoned white silk shirt, a gold ring in one ear. They don’t look at all Scottish, more continental European perhaps, and certainly prosperous.
The rehearsal goes like a dream. The Maxwell Band run through some items from their regular set, and then close with three pieces from the Calendarium. As these new, extended works get into their stride, and the swirling soundscapes suffuse the building, Anne-Marie notices several people drifting in and taking seats to listen. One little group moves away from the paintings and comes to sit near the front. Among them, and apparently deeply engrossed in the music, are the ‘Europeans’ she’s just noticed. When the set finishes, there’s polite applause and a few supportive yelps. The ‘audience’ then disperses and the band prepare to do the same.
In the van on the way back, Anne-Marie begins to doze, her head nodding and jerking along the uneven road. She wakes up with a sickly stomach and is glad when she’s dropped at home and can get a bit of a walk and some fresh air.
In bed that night, now feeling better, a realisation dawns. Maybe those ‘European’ odd-balls were scoping out the paintings at Carse House. For goodness sake, surely not. Lightning striking twice? No, really. But still … better tell Andrew as soon as she can.
On a damp morning, he is walking away from the centre of Kirkgate and along Station Road, its importance much restored now that trains are stopping here again. The fields open out on either side and then the golf course comes into view. A few enthusiasts have made an early start. Andrew hears distant banter from the 15th green. He’s never been one for golf, but the sight of people only a little older than him, out enjoying the ‘third age’ with their spouses, brings a heaviness to his heart.
At the station he finds a former patient, working in the small office.
‘Good morning Dr Stuart! Making a wee trip somewhere today’?
‘No just up for a nosey Bobby and to see how it’s going’.
‘Well, Glasgow train is on time and as you can see there’s a fair few folk waiting to travel on it’.
‘Yes indeed. That’s great to see. Business brisk then?
‘Well it’s early days, but we cannae complain. And if we get a summer like last year, there could be quite a few day trippers descending on the Nith valley, and travelling “the green route” in the months to come’.
‘Let’s hope so!’ says Andrew with a smile. ‘But actually I came to ask a favour.’
‘Just so long as it’s not above my pay grade’.
‘Well I fear it might be, but I’ll try anyway’.
‘The station opening was a grand affair. I saw some of the pictures in the Weekly and was wondering if you had kept the CCTV film, let’s say for posterity. Thought it might be something worth preserving, for historical interest’.
‘I’m sure you’re right doctor. Lots of folk still talking about the re-opening. But funny you should ask ‘cos when it came to do the routine CCTV check, we seemed to have a had a few teething problems. Working fine when the Silver Band was playing at the start. Then it just stopped recording and didn’t pick up again until about an hour later. We’ve had it looked at, but they couldn’t find any fault. Given no trouble since then either. But most of the bit you’re talking about, that’s gone I’m sorry to say’.
Andrew looks intrigued, then frowns and shakes his head. ‘Oh well, not to worry Bobby. It was just a thought that occurred to me this morning. Anyway it’s got me out for a walk. Think I might pop into the Lowther for a coffee on my way back’.
‘Aye, sounds a good idea doctor. Catch you again soon, maybe in need of a ticket next time?’
Andrew turns back down the hill, pondering what he’s just heard.
As he reaches the village, he turns in through an old wooden gate and passes between a stand of yew trees. As so many times before, he finds himself in Kirkgate’s graveyard, head bowed in front of the well-kept last resting place of Dr Sarah Carlyle Stuart.
Anne-Marie has suggested coffee in the Lowther Arms and is sitting in the lounge when Andrew arrives. She sees him first and notices how sad he looks, his handsome face drained of colour. Then he spots her and brightens suddenly, striding across the room, and to her surprise, giving her a big hug. Both now feeling clumsy, they fall to choosing their coffees.
Anne-Marie gets straight down to business, filling him in on the Carse House rehearsal and the dodgy ‘Europeans’.
‘I don’t suppose you got a photograph of them?’ he asks, not hopeful.
‘’Fraid not. That was a wee bit daft. Wouldn’t have been difficult’.
‘Your description is curious. Two people standing out from the crowd. Almost in fancy dress’.
‘You could say that’ she agrees. ‘So, what do you think?’
‘Well right now, I’m thinking rather a lot’. He tells her about the tweedy types and the lycra cyclists. She sits like a stunned mullet, jaw dropping at the import of it all.
‘You’re joking me! So they’re here at the start of the year to scope out Nithsdale Lodge, looking like they’re up for the shooting. Then they come back for the heist in March and make their getaway on bikes. Now it seems like they’re here again, looking ever so arty and with Carse House on their agenda! What the feck’s going on Andrew?’
‘I don’t know, but it’s all sounding very suspicious, as I also discovered this morning, when I called in at the station’. He explains about the missing section on the CCTV film. It seems more than a coincidence.
Should he speak to the police? She thinks not. He’s not so sure. They agree: at the moment it might all look a bit flimsy.
‘No need to go making fools of ourselves’ says Andrew, still keeping in mind the status of his name in the parish.
‘Quite right. Maybe we should wait to see what the cops come up with. But it seems to have all gone dead. Could be they’re running out of leads …?’
‘Perhaps, but there is one thing we could try while we’re here in the Lowther. Come on, let’s give it a go.’
They walk out to the hotel reception and Andrew is pleased to see the manager on duty.
‘Good morning Dr Stuart, is there something I can help you with?’
‘Well possibly yes. Bit of an odd question. But back in January I was here with my Friday evening pals and thought I might have seen a couple I’d known at Medical School. I forgot about it until yesterday when I got an email about our next class reunion and the organisers were asking for information about people not on their lists’.
The manager is disarmingly unquestioning. ‘I see, well let’s take a look …’
‘Oh … many thanks indeed’.
‘… what date was it exactly?’
‘The 6th of January’.
‘OK … here we go’. With a single index finger, he taps the keyboard, then shakes the mouse and gets preoccupied in the way people do when they’re helping someone with the aid of a computer. He ‘pomm pomms’ to himself as he checks the spreadsheet. ‘Well … hold on. Yep, that’s right, oh but just wait a wee minute now … what? Oh that’s very odd … very odd indeed.’
‘Why, what is it?’ asks Andrew, as Anne-Marie looks on, puzzled.
‘Getting an error message. Looks from this as if something unusual has happened. All our booking details for the hotel and the restaurant on 6th January seem to have been deleted from the system.’
It’s a coolish April night but Andrew’s kitchen is cosy. Michael is grateful for that. His own place sits above a cold shop and he’s on a pre-paid meter for the electric heating.
‘Right, let me get you a drink. You’ve walked up haven’t you?’
Michael nods and gives the thumbs up.
‘G&T, beer, glass of wine?’
‘I’ll have a gin please, bit of a treat on a school night!’
‘Too right’ Andrew replies, picking out a bottle from the sideboard. In fact he’s a pretty good barman and soon conjures up something that Peregrine’s would be proud of. They clink glasses and the host bustles about with the food.
‘We’re kicking off with smoked salmon from the Thursday van and then having my signature dish’.
‘Dauphinoise potatoes with peppered steaks and a tomato salad. Managed to get the salad on the black market, despite the shortages!’
The food is top notch and the small talk continues pleasantly through the main course. The football, the legacies of the last First Minister, the prospects for the new one, the strikes, the rate of inflation. But as they push back their plates and Andrew tops up the claret, each of them feels the mood change. They both know what’s coming next.
Andrew speaks first.
‘So about what you were saying on the hill last month’.
Michael looks decidedly uncomfortable.
‘I think I should apologise. I had no right to go spilling out my troubles like that, particularly in the circumstances. You really don’t need to know about all my woes’.
‘Well it’s pretty obvious I suppose …’
‘You mean because I’m a widower?’
‘But that’s just the point, you see.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, in a way we’re two sides of the same coin’.
‘We’ve both lost our wives, but in different ways’.
‘I hadn’t really thought about it like that’.
‘And nor had I at first, as I unreasonably spilled out my grief to you and Anne-Marie in the Lowther Arms and then talked to you on the hill about our childless marriage’.
‘Well I guess we do have some things in common’.
‘But only up to a point. When I go to Sarah’s grave I do talk to her. But it’s all one-way, apart for the things I imagine she would say. Are you able to have a proper conversation with Esme?’
‘We always could talk about things, made plans, organised our lives together, moved here against the odds and seemed to make a success of it. But now that’s all out the window. There’s almost no talk, and if there is, it very quickly turns sour’.
‘So where is there to go from here?’
‘That’s what I was hoping you would tell me. But of course that’s ridiculous’.
‘Correct. I can’t tell you what to do in any way, shape or form. But maybe this conversation with me could be a prelude to something a bit deeper with Esme? Talking about feelings and emotions that is, not the price of fish’.
‘You think so?’
‘I do, and what you said on the hill was a very good start. Could you now summon up the will for a proper talk with her? One where you give time to how this all happened and where you go from here.’
‘That’s the nub of it. True, my current living accommodation isn’t wonderful, but I guess that could change in time. Likewise there’s tension about childcare arrangements, but maybe that’s sortable. Could be the money is just about manageable. I’m not a spendthrift and neither is she’.
‘These are all very practical things you might say. So that leaves one very important not so practical matter’.
‘Your marriage. Do you think it has somehow run its course?’
‘You’ve hit the nail on the head there. But the answer is I don’t know’.
‘Then could you talk to Esme to try to find out?
‘Maybe I could, but most of the time I don’t want to see her, let alone sit down and talk together’.
‘Which may in fact be the most important thing you can do Michael …’
The two men sit quietly, not knowing where to look or whether to resume the discussion. Andrew decides it’s enough for one night and gets up from the table.
‘How about a last drink, “afore ye go”? I’ve got a very nice Arran malt here. A wee dram is probably the best thing for both of us right now’.
Easter Sunday dawns with a cool wind from the East, whisps of cirrus cloud scattering across the sky as it modulates from slate grey to China blue. The roads out of Kirkgate froth with the white blossom of blackthorn, as it briefly fills the hedgerows.
Anne-Marie’s ageing car pushes on up through the Dalveen Pass. Near the summit and down to her left she sees a quad-biked shepherd sweeping in a wide arc to pick up a stray lamb. The leggy creature sits on his lap for the short journey back to its mother, and the two are quickly reunited. The Agnus Dei comes to mind: ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us’.
She joins a still quiet motorway. Heading north, listening to the news magazine show on the radio. There’s been more trouble for the SNP in the past week, as police conducted searches of the party’s headquarters and the former First Minister’s own home. The ex-leader’s much publicized driving lessons won’t be enough to distract the public from this unfolding story. Meanwhile, the president of the party says it’s facing the biggest crisis in 50 years. From hubris to chaos can be a swift journey. Labour and the Tories are making a meal of it and are already looking ahead to the next general election.
Anne-Marie’s appetite for the news gradually wanes. She also needs to keep an eye on the traffic as it thickens up on the outskirts of Glasgow. Passing a large shopping centre, she turns off the main road and weaves her way into the Parkhead area. It too is in the headlines after a controversial victory for Celtic in yesterday’s ‘Old Firm’ game. Some verities are eternal.
She parks the car, turns a corner and climbs the worn and curving stone staircase of the tenement. At the second floor, the familiar yellow door is on the left. She taps, not too loudly, on the brass knocker. The door opens in moments and she steps inside.
‘Hi Ma. I hope I’m nae too early’.
‘Not at all’ comes the smiling reply. ‘It’s good to see you Anne-Marie’.
They embrace and then push apart, each holding the arms of the other. Mother looking with sad warm eyes into the face of her daughter. Anne-Marie gazing back, already wondering how she will get through the next few hours.
Fortunately the routine is well established. ‘Ma’ makes some instant coffee with hot milk, and serves it with a tray bake. Sun pours in through the south facing window and they sit side by side on a low and squidgy sofa, juggling cup, saucer, and ‘Rocky Road’. TV on, the sound turned down, they chat about nothing much in particular and the day unfolds according to pattern.
These visits began about seven years ago, sometime after Anne-Marie’s father had suddenly left home. For weeks they waited for him to come back to Kirkgate. He’d gone away before and always returned, never saying where he’d been. But this time there was a letter. Sent from Woolangong, in Australia, it was brief, but the message was clear. He was never coming back. The Kirkgate lad had finally flown the coop for good. No explanations.
Already working in Glasgow, Anne-Marie urged her mother to come back to the neighbourhood where she grew up. It didn’t take much persuasion. Life in the country had never really suited Senga, though she was sad to leave her job in the Kirkgate Co-op.
By and large and over time the move to Parkhead worked out OK.
First came the legal separation, then the divorce. Each born with grim determination, cross-hatched with unwarranted guilt. Nervously, Senga started going to Mass during the week, when few folk would see her. Then on some Sundays she would attend with Anne-Marie. After her first confession in decades, she cooried back into the religion of her childhood. Her faith seemed to deepen, but never in ways she could describe to anyone else, not even her only daughter.
Anne-Marie found it all difficult to fathom. Anger with her father modulated into bitterness, and eventually came to rest in an ironic cynicism. Most of the time she didn’t think about him. Except on the Sunday visits. Despite that, a routine established itself. It was the least she could do for Senga, who never pressed for more.
Today is no different. The errant father/husband goes unmentioned but hangs in the air like a tasteless joke. The two women enjoy the church service, brightened by more than usual numbers of young children and families. As the song goes ‘Mother Glasgow nurses all her weans’.
Back in the flat they sit at the kitchen table. The soup and sandwiches are already prepared. Afterwards there’s a cup of tea. Anne-Marie washes the few dishes and then, hands on hips, exhales with a well-rehearsed smile.
‘Well, I’d better get down the road, Ma. There’ll be holiday traffic today and I don’t want to get stuck at Hamilton’.
At the door, her mother kisses her on the cheek. ‘Thanks for coming hen. It’s good of you. See y’ again next time’.
The drive home is much as usual. By the brown sign turn off to Drumlanrig, the visit is back in its box, a meagre duty, duly discharged. Now she concentrates on the keys and melodies of April in the Calendrium. ‘The Devil’s Stone’ has a lot of heavy lifting to do, as the advancing year brings a slew of surprises and disruptions.
A weekday afternoon. Andrew’s doorbell rings at some length and he wanders into the hall, expecting a parcel delivery.
Opening up, he finds a youngish man in a trendy, if slightly cheap-looking blue suit, his brown pointy shoes protruding from skinny trouser legs.
‘Good morning sir, I’m looking for Dr Andrew Carlyle Stuart’.
‘That’s me!’ Andrew replies with a smile.
The response is unsmiling. ‘I’m Detective Constable Logan Harris, Police Scotland CID’. He holds up a double flapped badge just like on the television.
Guessing already what this might be about, Andrew invites the officer in, shows him to the kitchen and offers coffee, which is politely declined.
‘So DC Harris, how can I help?’
‘Well sir, you’ll know we are currently investigating a recent theft of valuable artworks, from Nithsdale Lodge’.
‘I do indeed’.
‘Well our concern, sir, is that some other people may be interested in the crime too, even pursuing investigations of their own’.
‘Oh really’ Andrew replies, quelling a smile that is hovering on his lips.
‘Yes’ says the officer, looking carefully at Andrew. ‘And we regard this as a serious matter’.
‘So how does it involve me?’
‘In the following ways, Dr Carlyle Stuart. We know that on the day after the robbery you were in the crowd at Nithsdale Lodge and even spoke to one of our uniforms. Then last week you made enquiries about CCTV footage at Kirkgate station. You likewise sought private information about guest bookings at the Lowther Arms. Prior to both of these you spoke to a photographer at the Dumfries Weekly asking about images generated at the ceremony for the re-opening of the station. Perhaps you can explain all this?’
‘I’ve been a doctor here for almost 30 years. I know a lot of people. I talk to them and they talk to me’.
‘With respect sir, I am here to ask you to bring these particular conversations to an immediate halt. This is a high profile matter. No doubt you will be aware that the involvement of amateur sleuths, social media influencers or just plain nosey parkers can negatively affect a police investigation’.
‘I can see that officer’.
‘Then I must tell you to cease your own enquiries into this matter forthwith and let the police, the professionals, get on with their job unhindered’.
‘That is understood DC Harris’ replies Andrew, adopting his most professional pitch and timbre. ‘Now, may I show you out?’
The road south takes in open country, with wide-angle views of the lower Nith valley. Broad swathes of farmland run down to the estuary, giving way here and there to uncultivated heath. The sun bursts occasionally through heavy rain clouds, bright and dazzling on the Solway tide.
With Andrew at the wheel of his comfy estate car, they pass Annan and Gretna, then curl round to join the motorway to England.
They are briefly in the ‘Debateable Lands’, that ancient pocket of clan-ruled lawlessness. The place out of which raiders and thieves journeyed forth to enrich their enclave by plundering the property of others. In the early 17th century between the death of Elizabeth 1st and the succession of James 1st and 6th, the Grahams, Armstrongs, and Elliots assumed that no law prevailed, and so went on a thieving rampage which came to be known as the ‘ill week’. These names still abound in the area, descendants of the Border Reivers, who gave the term be-reived, later bereaved, to the language
On a slender hunch, Andrew and Anne-Marie are heading to Carlisle. The possible art robbers were last seen boarding a train that ended its journey in Cumbria’s county town. They were on rather conspicuous bikes. Might a visit to the train station prompt some new thoughts about where they went subsequently? It’s worth a try Andrew thinks, and as he also points out, if all else fails, there’s an excellent coffee shop just a few blocks away where they can have lunch and pick up some freshly roasted beans.
Andrew hasn’t mentioned to anyone his recent visit from the CID.
‘So’, he asks, hands at ten to two and glancing briefly to his left, ‘How’s your work going these days, apart from those intrusive Europeans?’
‘Pretty well. I think I mentioned, at the beginning of the year I decided it was make it or quit. But already some good things are happening’.
‘What sort of things?’
‘My tutoring’s going well. Not too much, not too little. Regular income and there’s a decent few dates pencilled into the diary for the Maxwell Band – mainly festivals’.
‘I might get along to one of those if it’s fairly local’.
‘No problem. The Multiverse in August will be handiest for you. Plus it’s a fairly mainstream audience’.
‘Is that what you’re suggesting I am Anne-Marie?’ Andrew laughs. ‘What an indictment: mainstream!!!’
‘Ooops. Sorry about that doc! Anyway – moving swiftly on – the best thing just now is this ‘annual cycle’ composition I’m working at. The guys are always eager to try it out at rehearsals. I’ve sort of surprised myself at how each month it seems to come to me, in very different ways’.
‘So when will we get to hear some of it?’
‘Well next month actually at the Carse House gig. The plan is to play four sections in the second half of the set. Finish with something to blow their minds. Come to think of it, we’d better let Michael know about our curious European friends. Maybe he’d like in on it, he could come to the show with you?’
‘Good idea. I’ll tell him. He came over for dinner the other night, but we didn’t talk about the robbery’.
‘Really, that doesn’t sound like you Andrew!’
‘I know, I know …’ he smiles, then switching back to the Calendarium: ‘So it’s a different piece of music each month, taking us through the whole year?’
‘That’s right. This month’s a bit dark. I’m calling it the Devil’s Stone. Hope that doesn’t cause me problems’.
‘How’d you mean?’.
‘Well, I dunno. Maybe provoking the dark side, or something … ‘
Carlisle feels more like a city than Dumfries, but the two places have a lot in common. Both suffer from inequalities in health, wealth and esteem, and both have elected Conservative MPs to represent them at Westminster. Where once the people looked to local authorities to change their fortunes, now the golden eggs are promised by quasi-government organisations or else reside in pots of money set aside for levelling up. But it’s hard to see the benefits in the boarded up town centres and the decaying infrastructure.
They park in a multi-storey not far from the station and close to a cinema. It’s Saturday morning, the right time for shoppers but mercifully too early for the night-life revellers who will appear later. Carlisle can get quite lively after dark. Across the road is the site of a proposed new medical school. ‘Now that could be good for the place’ says Andrew. ‘Like Dumfries and Galloway they are short of doctors here, so they’re aiming to “grow their own”, just like we’ve already started to do with some success’.
They turn into the station concourse, ticket booths on the left, a shop on the right. Built in the 1840s in an ornate neo-Tudor style, the wide platforms, the elegant footbridge over the mainline, the spacious waiting rooms and other facilities, all speak to a different age of travel. Andrew and Anne-Marie wander along and across the entire expanse of the station. Trains rush through, others stop for passengers heading to Scotland, or south beyond the Lake District, to the post-industrial north of England and all points east and west.
But despite their search, no idea is sparked, nothing revealed. Then, just as they turn to leave, Anne-Marie sees some cyclists wheeling bikes onto the platform. They don’t look like they’ve pedalled far. She has an idea and goes to speak to them.
‘What was that about?’ asks Andrew.
‘Well let’s go and find out’ she replies, and they head back out of the main building and turn towards the station car park.
‘Those guys arrived here first thing and have been looking around the city for a couple of hours’.
‘OK. So …?’
‘I asked them where they’d left their bikes. Just along here apparently’.
In the carpark, slightly beyond the last row of vehicles, is a set of cycle racks, with several machines chained up.
It’s the work of a second for Andrew to spot them. Two expensive racing bikes, neatly secured. Out comes the double spread from the Dumfries Weekly, to confirm the suspicion. Winner! The very same machines are there in the photograph, being lifted onto the train by the sportily attired suspects.
Looking swiftly round and seeing no one, the two quickly unbuckle the panniers. As expected, the contents, all neatly packed, comprise two sets of cycling gear: helmets, shoes, leggings, tops and sun glasses. The bags and the expensive bikes, look like they’ve been abandoned. It’s nearly three weeks now since the robbery. Anne-Marie rootles a bit further and pulls out a map wallet containing a few leaflets. One is titled ‘Snowdrop walks in Nithsdale’ and the other ‘Events at Carse House’. They put everything back in the panniers and remove themselves as quickly as possible.
In the coffee shop over toasties and the Costa Rican ‘brew of the month’, they consider what they’ve learned.
Andrew’s suspicions about the cycling duo seem confirmed. With or without assistance, they appear to have organised the burglary of Nithsdale Lodge and made off with the miniature sculptures in their touring panniers. Likewise Anne-Marie’s hunch about the ‘Europeans’ and Carse House is looking very credible.
‘But why leave the brochures in the bags?’ she asks.
‘Perhaps taunting the police. Getting a bit cocky …’
‘Could be. Or maybe it’s a double bluff?’
‘Good thinking. But the circumstantial evidence points the other way’.
‘Except for the fact that in the previous examples, there’s only been one robbery per decade’.
‘As far as we know …’
‘OMG’, shrugs Anne-Marie, ‘this is getting a bit too convoluted for me’.
On the walk back to the car, Andrew stops at a phone box. Trying desperately to remember how it works, he puts in a brief call to Carlisle police station.
Days after the meal with Andrew, Michael is still ruminating on the conversation they had. There’s no denying that he and Esme have got stuck in a bad situation. It’s not much good for either of them and it’s certainly not good for the girls. On the other hand, he’s working as hard as ever and in fact beginning to incubate some new research ideas for a big grant application. In Andrew and Anne-Marie he’s met a couple of people, who could easily become friends. He likes living in the village, if not in his flat. But as the months go by, it’s becoming more obvious that some things need to be dealt with and can’t be put off much longer.
It’s a Sunday afternoon. Michael decides to go for a walk to clear his head. There’s a good circular route that takes him out from the flat and back to the village. About five miles. He knows of course that it will bring him quite close to the eco-house.
He heads north west and crosses the Nith at an old stone bridge. In other circumstances the walk would be life-affirming. Nesting birds, new growth in the trees, primulas and wild garlic in the hedgerows. After the blackthorn, the first heady bloom of the hawthorn has appeared. But Michael’s sensory faculties seem dulled and his thoughts go round in circles, making his head ache.
It was along this lane that he and Esme had driven in search of the plot of land with planning permission. Now the eco-house can be seen on the hill, a small wood just to its right. On an impulse, he opens a farm gate, crosses several fields and heads for the shelter of the trees.
From the edge of the copse he has a good view of the house, but is hidden from sight. He feels guilty at what he’s doing. Tucked away at the end of the drive, he notices the rear of a second car. Esme has visitors? Probably a shared ‘play day’ for the girls.
It’s warm in the sunshine and the wood is giving shelter from the persistent wind. Fighting with his conscience he sits and watches the house, trying hard not to feel like a stalker. After about half an hour the front door opens and he can hear voices.
A man a bit younger than himself steps out into the porch. Michael thinks he knows the guy and wonders what the hell he’s doing there. The next few seconds give an indication. Esme closes the house door behind her and folds her arms around the visitor. He reciprocates, kisses her briefly on the lips and then hugs her tightly. It looks like a warm embrace and it lasts some time.
Then the man turns and heads for his car. It’s a bit of a battered specimen and Michael recognises it now. The owner is one of his colleagues, a lecturer in sociology who came to the University about a year ago. Aghast, Michael is held in the moment. Then incredulity turns to despair and he lets out a series of quiet, gulping sobs, his fingers pushing hard at his temples.
Five minutes later he leaves the cover of the wood and returns to the route. Trudging back to the flat, his thoughts are moving much faster than his feet.
After a day in the garden battling the sudden changeability of the April weather, Andrew is looking for a bit of undemanding evening television. He scrolls down the channels until something catches his eye on the BBC. Coming up in a few minutes is the third episode in a series called ‘Scandals that Shook Scotland’. He hasn’t seen the previous two, but this one immediately grabs his attention. It’s about ‘a Duke’s stolen Da Vinci and its mysterious return’.
Jabbing at the remote, he leans forward in his chair.
The programme explains how Madonna and the Yarnwinder was stolen in August 2003, how the police enquiry quickly ran out of leads, and how the investigation gradually shifted to recovering the work of art, rather than catching those who had stolen it.
Then four years on from the robbery, two private investigators in Liverpool emerged, claiming to know the whereabouts of the painting and with ideas about how it could be restored to its owner. They enlisted their own lawyer, who paid a sum of money to a criminal gang for the painting. Two solicitors in Glasgow also got involved. The five could see a way to come by a substantial reward for themselves. When the police got wind of the scheme however, they planned and executed an operation to swoop at the crucial moment, just on the point of handover.
The story was headline news, the painting was duly returned and in 2010 the five appeared in the High Court in Edinburgh, accused of a conspiracy to extort £4.25 million from the Duke of Buccleuch. For two of them the case was not proven, the other three were found not guilty. They all walked free, but disgruntled. Then in 2013, the now disqualified English lawyer sued the Duke for the previous amount, but lost the case in the Court of Session.
To this day, the thieves themselves have never been found.
As he puts the short documentary on repeat, most telling for Andrew are the clips of CCTV film which show two young men, both inside the castle and making their getaway in a white car that was later found abandoned a few miles away. Whilst the police are on record as saying the theft at Drumlanrig was a well-planned operation, the video footage looks a good deal less convincing.
The BBC documentary seems to throw up more questions than answers.
Andrew walks through to his study and starts assembling notes, printing off photographs and photocopying sections of maps. Just like the TV detectives, he begins to put together a storyboard. But nothing too conspicuous. After all, he wouldn’t want to be caught ‘bang to rights’, if unannounced, DC Harris were to call again.
Copyright © David Graham Clark 2023
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this story I mix up and blur chronologies, geographies and biographies. Any resemblance to a person living or dead is purely coincidental. The 12 chapters of the novel Epiphanies and Robberies are appearing sequentially throughout 2023. I welcome comments and feedback on my novel, which is being written in ‘real time’. My thanks go to AG, FG, MB, SS and TH for advice and encouragement. All previous chapters can be found here: https://davidgrahamclark.net/epiphanies-and-robberies-a-novel/