We were on a bus to Scotland but it didn’t start out that way. It had begun only hours before on a warm afternoon in a bustling Covent Garden, London.
Two old school friends meeting for a drink.
I should have known. It was Childs after all, and we had history. We had spent seven years together at a minor fee-paying school on the borders of Wales.
Our last two years had slid into an abyss caused by the convergence of indolence, aging and too much free time. Character had nothing to do with it, or so I told myself. It was also the seventies.
We were both the sort of kids the other was told to avoid, although when you’re the one seen as the bad influence you never know why.
Perhaps we were rebels and prone to acting out because they only called us by our surnames, but there was more to it than that.
I had no father, a stepfather who hated me and a mother who had embroiled me in an affair. He had parents who occupied one of those dead marriages like lifers serving time. Interminable time spent mainly in ticking silence.
We were both prisoners in our way except we put up a fight. If it was ineffectual and immature, at least it was something.
And so, we bonded over things we were too young to comprehend and gravitated toward one another with a perilous inevitability.
I am writing this on my 57th birthday, 30 years after I quit drinking but back then, 35 years ago, my madness was at its apogee.
After Scotland, I rolled downhill with an alacrity that alarmed even me, although I had been careful to surround myself with fellow ne’er do wells as both buffer and camouflage.
Childs was one of them. We had last seen each other for two film visits in the commuter belt hub where his family lived: Apocalypse Now and The Shining.
He was part of a tranche of kids whose parents were in the armed forces and they seemed to arrive at school in a pack like some sort of job lot.
The usual bar for entry seemed to have been waived, like the parents were on some sort of discount for maintaining the peace during what looking back was a very peaceful era.
We never thought war could come again and we grew lazy and fat on peacetime privilege, only to be jolted awake by The Falklands crisis, which we never could find on any map.
Childs was the sort of bad boy that posh girls often love. He was tall and limber, blessed with blond curls, couldn’t give a fuck about much and when he sat down his lank limbs would consume a chair.
There was something appealing about that.
He was the walking equivalent of a hen night. I’ll have a bit of that before I settle down and marry that boring banker and fulfil the fate laid out for me.
He was also a bit thick, although he might have been traumatised. I don’t think so. That was me. He was just dumb.
Childs put the moron into oxymoron but you couldn’t help but like him. He was one hellish cherub and even had a beauty spot above his pouting lips.
Stick him in a dress and wig and he could have been Marie Antoinette.
I was in a flat in Park Lane that weekend, not knowing what to do with myself. It wasn’t my flat but that of a wealthy colleague who took pity on me when he saw my suitcase under my desk.
What does the barfly have in common with the limbo dancer? The lower you go, the higher you feel. I never did find time to look for somewhere to live.
And so, I picked up the phone to Childs. We met. We drank. He was one of numerous satellites orbiting my drinker’s sun.
We drank some more and thereafter things get a little threadbare memory wise.
Twelve hours later, I am coming round. Where the fuck am I? I’m in a field and as I roll over I see Childs’s body. It was like we had dropped out of the sky from a plane crash and remained where we lay.
I keep seeing the Lockerbie disaster in another Scottish field where bodies pocked the ground in something far more sinister.
A white transit pulls up and a workman calls from the window to my friend who seems to know what’s going on. We had arrived, but where, and how?
There are two men in the van; we pile in the back and, still drunk, can hardly contain our mirth as a conversation ensues.
It turns out we are in Ayrshire just over the border from England and we are here as Childs has a girlfriend whose family live here.
At some point, I must have gotten on that overnight bus with him, forgotten to have gone home — not that I had one.
We had whooped and hollered our way up to the lowlands all night, much to the dismay of our fellow passengers, who had hoped for sleep before getting home after a week’s work down south.
If communication and consideration was in sparse supply then, in the transit the former got far worse.
The two men were trying to tell us something, but we could not comprehend a single word they said. I think it was the funniest attempt at conversation I never had.
Our hosts were charm itself and barely blinked as not one but two young men, both hungover and exhausted, swooped in on their farmhouse and soon settled in.
They were landowners, wealthy and sophisticated, part of Scotland’s elite and they knew how to welcome you. I can’t recall the girlfriend’s name but she was one of four beautiful, beautiful daughters who were graced with characters that often derive from bounty, money, kindness and care.
Childs was punching above his weight and was on borrowed time. I saw it way before he did.
Don’t think you’re gonna get your feet under the table here brother, I thought to myself.
We bathed, we ate. The mood was warm and friendly, but suddenly with one fairly brief announcement things took a darker turn.
I liked the father enormously. He was the sort of measured man and benign patriarch who seems to offer instant protection. You just felt safe around the guy.
What came next managed to shock me out of my hangover.
‘You need to know,’ he said, ‘there’s been a murder. A young woman was strangled in our barn.’
The silence that followed was reminiscent of the one in the Childs’ household but was of a decidedly different hue. This was no silence born of boredom rather a terrible fear and deep shock.
This can’t be happening, there’s no way, I thought. But it was. I can’t remember now if the murder had occurred that week or that month but it was recent and no-one had been caught.
There was a killer on the loose and Childs and I were probably crashing through the evidence. Clearly this wasn’t a good time. We needed some yellow tape around us more than the body needed a chalky outline.
In recent days, I have been scouring the internet for evidence and to see if the killer was ever caught but haven’t come up with much.
Angus Sinclair, Scotland’s notorious paedophile and murderer, was already serving life at the time and Peter Tobin, Scotland’s deadliest export, hadn’t started his crime spree by then unless, as some believe, he was the infamous Bible John.
But strangulation in a barn didn’t seem like a domestic. This was something else.
It was suggested we took a trip over to Edinburgh to see one of the other daughters who was at university. We climbed into the car and got the hell out after just one night in the tiny, normally peaceful, Ayrshire village.
If you don’t know Edinburgh, it’s a small city, known for its arts, its castle and of course, it’s running battle with its English overlords.
It has its own history of murder like any city but it welcomed us into its arms as perfect antidote, where we could forget the surreal nature of our trip so far.
I was, of course, supposed to be at work. At least the suitcase was no longer under my desk. The magazine, where I was attempting and failing to sell advertising space — I just didn’t have the chutzpah back then — would have to do without my presence for a week.
I would ring in and hold my nose each morning, hoping the line was bad as it mostly was in those days from north to south.
Whether it was the trauma of the murder and its aftermath or, as I knew, the simple fact of the epic misalliance that was Childs and this auburn goddess, we were soon on a train back to London.
In a series of awkward conversations and significant begging on his part, she had finally managed to prise him off her.
It’s not you it’s me is surely better than the reverse, I argued on the British Rail 125 as it sped south.
But Childs was in no mood to talk and no mood for my company either to which he attributed the sudden collapse of his brief love affair.
Whenever I enquire about him now, no one from the old days seems to have a clue as to his whereabouts. He was the kind of person you might expect would have a short life.
Mind you, some people would say that about me, but today, on this birthday, I’m still here. It is only five days after his.
© simon heathcote