Fiction / Scott McNee


Ten Leopards

Issue 1. February 01, 2021

 

Aiden Docherty came back into Shawkirk shivering on the seventeenth of October, the wool collar of his coat gnawing at a bruised collarbone. He had been in Glasgow the last two days, spreading the Word. He had been armed with seventy-six A4 sheets of paper – 1 Corinthians 1:18, typed all over:

               FOR THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS IS FOOLISHNESS TO THOSE WHO ARE PERISHING, BUT TO US WHO ARE BEING SAVED IT IS THE POWER OF GOD.

              He had been leaving them in public toilets, where he thought they’d be needed. At one point, a few weeks back, he had tried handing verses directly to people and found little success. He had looked up and down the street and found himself sandwiched with various other denominations and Mormons and Muslims besides. The threat of louder competition drove him off the street and onto other ideas. He’d resorted to toilets after the multilevel car park attendants had stopped him slotting the paper behind windshield wipers. McDonalds and train station toilets had taken the bulk of the verses. They would find the people in need there.

               But it was time for Shawkirk again. Brian, his friend from university, had put him up for the last two days in his Glasgow flat until scepticism set in. A playful jibe at the verses the first night had become outright mockery on the second, with several remarks about ‘picking and choosing’. In any case, Aiden was out of paper.

              The effort of the past few days drove him into as swift a solitude as he could manage, heading straight for his parents’ house from the station. Retirement saw them on frequent holidays, and he was relieved to find the hall dark and cool. They were in Devon, they’d said that at one point. He slept for two hours against the stairs and then hit the printer.

              It was already dark when he got back to Shawkirk’s main street, twenty-odd verses stuffed in his coat pockets. The sun had long since substituted for the fluorescent yellow Lidl logo. He peeled his collar away from the skin. Shawkirk was limited for verse targets, especially by the evening. The Lodger was the most obvious destination, but he could already see the faces of everyone he had hated in school waiting there, huddled round their pints. He was something to gossip about now. Brian wasn’t the only one to have laughed at his mission.

              No, a pub toilet wouldn’t do anyway. Drunks were too hyper, too cruel. If they didn’t piss on the verses, they’d use them as toilet paper. He bought coffee from the petrol station and walked back to the kebab-stained bench at the train station. He perched on the end, careful to avoid the grease. He had time to think, interrupted solely by his own slurping and the muffled sound of the wind flapping the lid of a polystyrene takeaway box.

               Shawkirk was full of the perishing. In Glasgow there was enough foot traffic that he had to reach out to someone, statistically. And you had to want to be reached out to, really. A three person’d God could batter His way to a man’s soul, but it was considerably more illegal for a mortal to try the same approach.

              “Your problem,” Brian had said, “is that this thing of yours justifies anything you want it to. You pick and choose anything you want to believe.”

              “I believe in the Bible.”

              “Parts of it, from what I can see.  You don’t even go to church. Far as I can tell the only consistent tenet of your religion is that you are at the fucking head of it.”

              The station speaker announced the cancellation of the next train. Aiden tried to work out if that was meaningful. At times he would have to reckon his faith against a knee-jerk declaration of coincidence, like he was rolling dice. The stack of papers crinkled between shirt and coat as he hunched over to finish the coffee. The station speaker repeated the cancellation in a louder voice and he flinched enough that the cup rolled from his hands and down over the platform edge. He could see himself in the hooded black bulb of the station security camera. Aiden slid from the side of the bench and stuffed a verse through the window grate of the station building. The message came through crumpled, but began to unfurl once fully behind bars.

              “CCTV cameras are operational in this station twenty-four hours a day,” said the speaker, slow and emphatic.

              He crossed into the main street again, before whoever was watching could blare another snide comment. He was forced to stop, wheezing, by the wall of the bank, when the paper stack began to slide out from under his coat. The blood in his ears groaned, and he was thankful not to hear approaching engines as he shovelled the Word into his clothes like stage padding. He pulled the coat belt tighter this time. Everything he wore was sliding from him these days. It was a comforting thought, and it chased off the embarrassment. If he was justifying his own behaviour, as Brian had claimed, would he really go threadbare and hungry?

              He decided it was best to go uninterrupted. Shoving his hands in his pockets to keep track of the papers, he hurried past the Lodger, snatching laughs and shouts from behind the swinging of doors. Incredibly, there were people sitting outside, faces cast lined and crimson red by the heat lamps. He kept his eye to the ground and the cigarette butts until he was in the clear. Would any of them read the verse in the station by morning? Odds were good; odds it would mean anything to them were slim. If he got through to one person it would all be worth it.

              In the dark space between two buzzing lampposts, Aiden looked both ways down the street and, satisfied, hopped over a stone dyke wall and down into the park. His landing was off, his heel glancing on the wet roots, flipping him onto his back into the mulch of cast-off autumn leaves. The wall, he thought, blinking. He touched the crown of his head and laughed. He might have fallen on his arse, but he had avoided dashing out his own brains at least. When the mud started to seep through to his legs he staggered up and lurched into the blackened park.

              It had been years since his last visit to the park, and memory would not have helped in the dark. He came out of the line of the trees onto a featureless plane – mud, grass and concrete path blended into the same nothingness. A mass of flashing lights forced its way across the emptiness, and Aiden waited until it had passed and he could safely surmise it as a man and a dog running with fluorescent lights and jackets. One of the more tame things to encounter in a park at night. He walked on, shuffling his papers to force blood in his arms. Brian could never say he wasn’t dedicated, not if he heard of this. Seeing dedication in action could make anyone see sense.

              Light and time had an odd relationship, Aiden thought. His eyes were not adjusting to the dark as much as he had hoped, and the seconds passing were arbitrary. Several times he restarted his count, lengthening and shortening seconds in frustrated confusion, until he emerged before the lunar security light fixed glowing to the wall of the public toilets, and his imagined clock hands fell into place. Even blind and disorientated, he had arrived where he was supposed to be.

From his little island of light, he could see reflections in inactive headlights a distance away. He figured he was near the car park, and resolved to avoid it. Whatever business people had in parked cars in the middle of the night was best not interrupted. He nudged the door of the toilets with his shoe. The door had been shoddily bolted to the Edwardian lean-to that passed for a toilet, and it shuddered on the hinges.

              “Anyone in there?”

              Reassured, he stepped in and bolted the door behind him. The lightbulb gave a few false starts before it revealed a cracked brown toilet and sink, overlooked by a narrow window of frosted glass. Aiden put a finger to the grimy windowsill and it came away wet. That was not unexpected. He had prepared for situations like this in Glasgow, and it would work here. He wouldn’t be helping anyone if he yielded before something so simple.

              He leant against the rugged bricks as he fished for the string from an interior pocket, holding out the paper stack with his other hand. He took the string in his teeth, selected one of the verses and stuffed the rest into his belt, and worked the strand through a hole in the paper he worried with the nail of his right thumb. Once the paper hung on a short loop he bit the string into a manageable length and knotted the ends. Climbing up onto the toilet, he kept one hand on his stomach guarding the papers while he looped the string over the window handle. As the paper settled, the colours warped in the frosted glass, exaggerating the swing of the tether. He had never liked frosted glass. It always looked as if something was moving behind it.

              He made to step down and see how it looked, and heard the mud of his shoe squeak against the toilet seat. The back of his head cracked against the floor, colours pulsing a torrent behind his eyes and time went out of play.

              Groggy, he sat up and pulled his foot from the toilet. The heel was dripping.

              “Brian,” he said, and didn’t know why.

              The Corinthians verse swung from side to side against the window, unsettled by his fall. Even squinting he could not read the text. His fingers blurred at the edges as he counted them. He pulled himself up and hobbled out of the light. Car headlights glinted in his peripheral. He couldn’t tell if they had crept closer.

              It was after he clambered up the boundary wall and onto the street, stone carving at the soft pockets of flesh under his knees, that he could form a coherent thought. He walked, hand on stomach. He would look dazed, he figured, and if he stopped to breathe he’d attract attention even on this deserted street. The verses were undamaged, again. As close to proof as you could get in matters of faith. The Word endured. Aiden watched rings of light ripple out from each blurred lamppost. It was the contrast with the park, he told himself. Everything was colour. Each car went howling past spiralling reds and yellows, and the neon logo of the petrol station filled a blank sky.

              He was standing below it now, he realised. He touched the back of his head. Wet, sore but what came off on his fingers was too dark to be blood. He closed his eyes, basking in the heat from the glare. A sliding door rattled open.

              “Aiden! Aiden!”

              A dim, raggedy shape was emerging from the side of a black van at the pumps. Other shapes were standing around in the shape of people. He had thought the place empty.

              “Yeah?” He could feel his pulse in his eye sockets.

              “It’s Rana. From school?”

              “Oh, hi, haha,” he said. Slowly, he added features to a blank face, the blurring fading to form Rana. “How – how are you?”

              “Ah not bad, not bad. We were up the moor. Band stuff. I’m in a band now. Well, not in the band really, but I’m kind of the manager. And we all got in a big fight of course. Cause we’re a band.”

              “Oh, aye. That’s good.”

              “I’m the Yoko.”

              “Could be worse.”

              “God I’ve not seen anyone from school in ages. Are you still at uni?”

              “I dropped out.”

              Rana inclined her head in sympathy and blurred again. “Sorry.”

              “No, it’s fine. Just wasn’t what I was expecting.”

              “Could say that about a lot of things.”

              “Are you back in Shawkirk then?”

              Rana was quiet enough that Aiden blinked several times to reassure himself that time wasn’t lapsing again. “No,” she said. “Don’t think I’ll ever be back.”

              “Sorry.”

              “Well again – things don’t turn out as you’re expecting.”

              “There’s reason in everything.”

              She was staring him down, maybe. It was hard to fight the urge to shut his eyes.

              “We didn’t even get to the lesbian part. It was all about the hijab.”

              “I heard something like that,” Aiden said. “But you’re with friends now.”

              “You can look at it that way.”

              “It’s better than nothing. There’s still something there.”

              “Hm.” The face pulled back into obscurity. “I’ve to go wrangle my friends now. Take care Aiden.”

              He mumbled the same and did not move. The van snarled its way out of the petrol station, windows tinted against the Aidens of the world. He spun to watch it go up the road to Glasgow, and kept spinning until he faced the car behind him, the one that had waited there with the growling engine and the amber reading light that vomited three silhouettes leaning forward in their seats. Rana’s van was four red lights vanishing over the hill.

              Aiden approached the car. He was swaying, he thought. The blurred colours could be anything in the shape of an idea of a car – this hunched, yellow-eyed thing with its shaking riders. An automatic window whirred open.

              Aiden unbuttoned his coat and let the papers spill out, into the wind and street.

Scott McNee is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde, with work previously published in Gutter, The Grind and Quotidian.