I don’t know how many people my grandfather killed, though I suspect the number is high.
He was a very private man but came out of his shell in later years. He had separated from my grandmother when I was a teenager and he only told me about the deaths near the end of his life. I remember getting upset following their divorce and it was around this time he gave me his sunglasses. He called them his ‘Deadly Night Shades’, but I would not learn the significance of the name until much later.
Having never been married myself, I spent a lot of time with him in his final years. We would take trips out of Edinburgh to the beaches of East Lothian. A keen golfer, he taught me how to play at the Old Golf Course in Musselburgh as a young teen, before we tackled some of the finest championship courses in the county. When he was no longer able to look after himself, he sold his house in Edinburgh and came to live with me in Port Seton. By then, of course, his golfing days were over, but his gift of storytelling was unleashed.
Sometime in 1989
‘You still got them?’ he asked.
I knew he was referring to the sunglasses but asked him what he meant all the same.
‘The Deadly Night Shades,’ he confirmed.
I nodded and headed upstairs to my bedroom to retrieve them. I was no longer a teenager and was starting to wonder about the nickname he had given his heirloom. They were in my bedside table, kept at the back of a slim drawer behind whichever crime novel I was reading at that time. On this day it was an Agatha Christie novel, which I had finished the night before – The Caribbean Mystery. Like much of Christie’s work, there was poison at the centre of the story and, of course, this one had Deadly Nightshade. Fate? Coincidence? Serendipity? Whichever way you wish to phrase it, the truth was about to be told and I was nervous about it. The only thing he had told me about them was he last wore them in 1954. The year was exact, which I always knew was significant, but thus far I hadn’t joined the dots. There were many gangs and incidents of violence, albeit more common in Glasgow, but my research has shown the mid 1950’s was not a prominent period for such activities, that would come back much later.
I reached into the drawer and pulled out the case that contained the glasses. It was made of soft, light brown leather, with a small magnetic clip keeping it closed. The glasses themselves were wrapped in a soft dark brown cloth, adding further protection. I headed back down the stairs and approached my grandfather, who sat in his Queen Anne chair which was positioned to allow equal views of the television and the Port Seton coastline from the front bay window. I handed him the case and sat on the sofa.
Before he spoke, he did something slightly unusual that I had not witnessed before. He closed his eyes and lifted the case to his nose, inhaling the scent from the soft leather. He then turned towards me and handed the case back unopened. As I took the case in my hand; he began the story.
‘It started out of necessity, then became a ritual.’ I noticed that his soft blue eyes were moist as he spoke, the liquid straining to remain in place. ‘I survived the war, having been posted in places where the fighting had either ceased or never begun. My gun remained unfired throughout the whole period. Like many ex-soldiers, I struggled to find employment after I was discharged before I answered a cryptic advert in the local newspaper.’
‘I thought you were a postman?’ I interjected. My mind was racing, trying to resolve the puzzle unfolding in front of me. How many lies had this man told me? This man, that I had trusted and looked up to all my life. By the end of the story, I would discover that he had told me none.
‘I joined the GPO in 1955 and worked there happily until my retirement in 1974. It was the preceding period that I now wish to share with you, but you must promise not to tell anyone what I am about to say.’ I nodded unreservedly and he continued. ‘The first time I killed a man was in 1947.’ The words hit me like a storm, here it was at last. My fears that this respectable man had been hiding a dark secret all these years were awoken. I was frozen to the furniture, my legs losing the ability to move me. I could do nothing but listen to the story unfold.
‘The first was the most difficult and once it was completed, I walked home putting on those very glasses. I remember that day like it was yesterday, it was a typical overcast Edinburgh afternoon, but I walked home with those glasses hiding the tears in my eyes.’ The first tear rolled down his cheek and he lifted his handkerchief to his eyes with an unsteady hand. ‘The killings got slightly less painful with each one I performed, but never easy. Right up until the last one in 1954, those glasses hid tears. When the law changed, I could not have been more relieved, even though I knew I would be out of a job.’
My legs found themselves as I leapt up, unintentionally startling my poor grandfather. ‘What do you mean you would be out of a job?’ My voice was raised slightly in shock rather than anger. ‘What happened in 1954?’ He reached out a quivering hand towards me and I took it as I knelt by his side. The words came out just before the flood of tears.
‘Your grandfather has the unenviable notoriety of conducting Edinburgh’s last ever hanging.’
My grandfather passed away in the winter of 1992 at the age of eighty-two. After he confessed his past to me on that day in 1989, I returned the glasses to the drawer, and we never discussed the matter again. The only time I took out the glasses were on the day of his funeral. They have remained untouched since.
I have always hated funerals and, although I have yet to meet someone who enjoys them, I have more reason that most to hold them with such complete contempt. I had a twin sister who was killed in 1971, when we were just twelve years old.
The driver of the stolen car was not much older than us. I later found out that he had been taught how to hotwire a car by his older cousin, who had spent most of his life in and out of prison. The unlocked Ford Capri was too tempting for this delinquent, and he was desperate to test the speed and acceleration. It happened one winter’s evening, when we both had attended the local youth club disco. Normally we made the short journey home together, but this night I stayed back to talk to a girl I was keen on. My sister told me it was too cold to wait and headed off on her own. People talk about the senses of twins, and I felt a pain deep in my stomach seconds before I heard the tyres screech and the screams of the witnesses.
I ran to the scene, but friends held me back preventing me from witnessing the devastation. I hated them at the time, but I am now grateful that when I picture her, I see the beautiful, cheeky, mischievous sister that I loved. She was taken away, having been pronounced dead on the scene and my parents came to collect me. I have trouble recalling much of what happened afterwards, the hospital visit, the police interviews, even the funeral. I just remember that same gut-wrenching pain I felt just before the accident, came back each time I saw her coffin.
My parents never recovered, and both were dead by the summer of 1980. My mother went first, searching for solace at the bottom of a bottle of vodka. My father never drank, but he threw himself into his work, spending every possible hour of the day at the office rather than face the nightmare that was developing at home. An already stressful job, it was a heart attack late one evening, when all his colleagues had long left, that finally took him. I had just turned twenty.
I sold the family home in Musselburgh and bought a smaller house along the East Lothian coast in Port Seton. As soon as I saw the view from the living room window, I knew I had to live here. Christmas of 1980 was the loneliest time for me, the first time I had no immediate family. My grandmother had passed away the year before, so it was just me and my grandfather left (I did have some distant relations in Canada, but there had been a family falling out before I was born, so I never met them). I visited my grandfather in his house in Edinburgh and we had Christmas lunch together before I headed back to Port Seton to have the evening to myself. I remember sitting down to watch Airport 1975, but my mind could not focus on the movie. In the end, I switched off the television and headed to bed, promising myself I would make more of an effort in future years.
Modern technology is a wonderful thing.
I remember treating myself to a VCR (Videocassette Recorder) before Christmas one year in the early Eighties. I stocked up on movies, became a regular at the local video rental store and become quite the movie buff. Even today I get a joy out of watching the movies of that time, it may not be akin to the Golden Era of Hollywood, but there are some from that period that I must have watched hundreds of times. Little would I know how quickly, and advanced, technology would become. Soon there were home computers, video games, DVD, mobile phones, the internet and finally social media.
If the recent pandemic gave people one thing, it was an insight of the wonders of the National Health Service. This healthcare system has been under appreciated since 1948, most people only realising how important it is when they became ill. The advancements in treatment may not have saved my sister but it has helped many others live full and happy lives. Unfortunately, I was too late seeking medical help to benefit from these advancements.
Doctors have given me anything from one month to twelve, but regardless how long I have left I am going to make the most of it. Social media helped me discover the wonders of the world and, most importantly, vital information.
Thirty Minutes Ago
I open the drawer of the bedside table and reach behind the latest Val McDermid novel for the sunglasses. I lift the soft case to my nose and inhale the aroma of nostalgia – Brylcreem, Old Spice and Woodbines. I can’t recall the last time I wore them; they were never quite in fashion when I cared about such things. Nowadays, they remind me of the classic look of Cary Grant or James Stewart. They will suit me now that I have lost some of my excess fat, although I wouldn’t recommend fourth stage pancreatic cancer as the ideal weight loss plan.
I slip the glasses into the left-hand pocket of my dark overcoat and head down the stairs. I check that I have turned off the oven and that the back door has been locked. I pull the front door behind me and engage the mortice lock, checking the handle several times to ensure it is secure. The car is parked in the driveway, but I leave it there and head for the pavement.
Amazing, I recently discovered that my destination is only a twelve-minute walk away.
Ten Minutes Ago
David Goodman is anything but a ‘Good Man’. He lives alone in a run-down rented house in one of the less desirable locations in the county. Going by my internet searches, he has been in and out of prison more times than I have lost golf balls. The normal course of justice does not appear to have helped rehabilitate him and it seems he has neither regret nor remorse.
It’s late in the evening as I arrive at his pitiful abode, and the neighbourhood is eerily silent. It appears that the residents have called it a night and headed off to bed. I can see the light of the television coming through the cheap, tattered curtains of his living room and surmise that his is still awake. I walk along the cracked, weed-ridden pathway to his front door. I take a deep breath, although the nerves I was expecting have not materialised. I don’t trust the workings of the doorbell, so give the letter box a rattle to gain attention.
When he opens the door, he appears older than I expected, dark rings around his eyes and a nose that indicates alcohol abuse. His greying hair is matted and stuck down with grease and sweat. He is wearing ripped jogging bottoms and a faded t-shirt of a band that have not been heard of for decades.
‘David Goodman?’ I ask him.
‘Whose asking?’ he grunts in reply. We stare at each other for a moment, but it feels like hours. I need him to say it and my perseverance pays off.
‘Aye.’ The word is said in such a growl that in normal circumstances I would be petrified. He no longer scares me, even with his threatening next remark. ‘What the fuck do you want?’
It’s all I have to say to get a reaction. He goes to slam the door on me, but I am prepared and throw my foot in the doorway, jamming it open. I take a step forward, throwing my remaining weight at the door, which bursts open sending Goodman crashing to the floor. A coat stand falls with him and he struggles to get to his feet. I calmly close the door behind me.
‘Get up, you useless piece of shit.’ My emotions have surfaced and he tentatively rises back to his feet, hands raised in a pointless surrender. I slip my right hand to the knife, tucked inside my waistband at the small of my back. Without hesitation, I drive the blade deep, twist and watch the life leave his eyes. I wait only long enough to ensure the wound is fatal before retreating from the scene and head back the way I have come.
The evening is mild, the sun has long gone and in other moments this would be an enjoyable walk home. Despite the violence, I am barely bloodstained, but I am not bothered about being caught. Any arrest and subsequent trial would take longer than the time I have left in this world.
I take out a handkerchief and wipe the blood from my hands, dropping it into my pocket. I inspect my fingers under the yellow streetlights and they seem relatively clean. Reaching into the other pocket, I retrieve the sunglasses and slip them on to gaze at the moon.