Stone Flowers Grow In Cold Places

 

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Prologue

It was impossible to discern precisely where the noise was coming from but there was a lot of it, footsteps thundering and the occasional loud bang of furniture being tipped over and doors being slammed. Not quite chaos, but almost. Shouts, muffled voices, the front door being unlocked and opened, then quieter footsteps moving through the lower floor of the house. Silence. After the longest five minutes of Marianne Blake’s life, the voice came through the phone again.

“Mrs Blake, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here. Have you got them? What happened?”

“We’ve got them. They have no idea you’re in the house and we want to keep it that way. I’m going to have my men take them down to the station, but I’d like to come in and talk to you, make sure you’re alright, give you some information about what happens next. You can come out from under the bed but please stay away from the windows for a few minutes. You’ll see flashing lights and hear one of our vehicles pulling away, but don’t worry. The worst is over and you’re safe. That’s the important thing. You can hang up now and I’ll see you shortly.”

Relief. “Alright. Oh, thank you so much Sergeant Thomas. Thank you.”

“It’s OK, Mrs Blake. It’s what we’re here for.”

Marianne waited a full fifteen minutes after hearing the engine vanish into the distance. Having had no further contact from Sergeant Thomas, she crawled towards the window, then taking a deep breath, carefully pulled the bottom of the curtain out just enough to tuck her head beneath it. When she looked out the window, there was no-one to be seen, only a blue flashing light sitting in the middle of her lawn, silently illuminating the vast, expensively landscaped garden with its dizzying spin.

As the dark blue van sped through the countryside with its precious cargo of silverware, crystal, the good china, and the hideous but valuable paintings and ornaments, Andie Valentine shouted over the rumble of wheels on uneven road, “Guys, you could’ve been faster than that. It’s not easy keeping them talking.”

Hugh MacRobert, decorator by trade, burglar extraordinaire by design and pathological flirt by nature, replied with a good-natured smirk, “As much as we appreciate the performance review, you might want to hold off on the critique there, ‘Sergeant Thomas’. Unless you fancy doing the heavy lifting next time?”

“And let you loose on the phone with the rich middle-aged woman? No chance. Three seconds in and you’d be talking her clothes off. Besides, this isn’t the kind of thing you pull twice. It’s too specific. Word gets around.”

Hugh leaned forward, emerging only slightly from the darkness in the back of the van, and winked at Andie in the rear-view mirror, fully aware that she was speaking the truth, about all of it. “Aye, well, it’d work too. With the woman, on the phone.”

Andie rolled her eyes and took one hand off the steering wheel to push her short red hair back from her face. Hugh was indeed an expert in all of his fields and was blessed with the kind of face people with too much money paid surgeons to create. Still, they had known each other for long enough that for all his bravado and teasing, Andie trusted him with her life.

Jamie Sharpe, Hugh’s nephew, and apprentice in both decorating and less legal activities, shifted nervously in the seat next to Andie, gnawing on a thumbnail through the hole in his black balaclava. He hadn’t been in this line of work for long and was constantly on edge, although he showed great promise when it came to breaking and entering thanks to his talent for parkour. All that jumping around and climbing up things was proving very useful. He straightened his balaclava with his free hand and stopped chewing his thumbnail for long enough to ask, “Are we nearly at the drop-off?”

“Yeah, it’s just here,” said Andie, turning the van into an almost-hidden entrance to a private road, leading to a farmhouse surrounded by outbuildings, all in darkness, “and for fuck’s sake Jamie, take that mask off. You look like a criminal.”

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To be the place where you found warmth

Kim, I saw that cat again today, the scraggly wee black and white one you used to put food out for. I hadn’t seen it in ages then I was sitting on the step earlier having a smoke and there it was. It came right over to me and started winding round my ankles and purring like it wanted something. I didn’t have anything to give it except half a biscuit I’d stuck in my pocket before I came outside cause I couldn’t finish it, so I broke it up a bit and set it on the ground. And you know what? The cat ate the fucking biscuit. I didn’t even know cats ate biscuits. Maybe they don’t, in general, but this one did. It wasn’t a chocolate biscuit though, cause I remember you said cats could die if they ate chocolate.

It hadn’t been a bad day up until that point. I’d slept in a bit and had a joint when I woke up so I could eat breakfast—that was the other half of the biscuit—but I was feeling alright. When I saw that cat though, it broke me a wee bit. I’d gone a whole five minutes without thinking about you, then I remembered the first time you seen the cat sitting on our windowsill and you started tapping the window and waving at it, like a cat would know what waving meant. Like it was going to wave back or something. It must have seemed interested though, cause you went out to pet it and it let you pick it up. I know I rolled my eyes at you through the window, but it was the most beautiful thing ever. Not the cat, but seeing you all happy like that.

I think, back then, it wasn’t too unusual for you to be happy, but as time went on and things got worse, I held on so tightly to that memory. It’s like I had this catalogue of your smiles stored away in my head. I still do. Sometimes when I want to torture myself, I look through them all and remember how you’d light up from the inside when you smiled and how the light made everything else look like a mess of grey nothing compared to you. I remember you’d get all embarrassed at how I looked at you then, cause you knew I was saving all the details in my head. You used to tell me I should put my memory to better use, that I was really smart and I could do something more than working in the coffee shop and doing jobs with Hugh. Other people said stuff like that and it pissed me off, but it was OK when you said it cause you didn’t mean it the same way as they did.

You were the smart one though, getting all your exams and going to university. You said everyone always told you that you would, like it was just what was going to happen, no question. I used to think about how you’d be a doctor one day like your parents and I’d still be washing dishes and making cappuccinos and going out in the van with Hugh driving stolen shit around. You would have been an amazing doctor. You were the kindest person I’d ever met. Everything about you was pure sweetness but when the shit hit the fan you were totally calm and in control. I think that’s what made it so hard to see you losing it the way you did near the end, to know you were falling and all I could do was hope I caught you before you hit the ground. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling like I didn’t do enough or didn’t do the right thing, like if I could have found the perfect thing to say you might not have felt so hopeless and it would have all been alright and you’d still be here. It seems cruel that you were the one who was so good at saving other people and you got stuck with me who couldn’t save you.

After the cat finished the biscuit, I picked it up and sat there for a while, just holding it. I know it wasn’t your cat but it’s weird that it hadn’t been around since before and then it showed up today. Or maybe it had been here and I just hadn’t noticed it. I don’t know. It squirmed around in my arms for a bit and then tried to climb inside my jacket, so I let it. There was something nice about being a source of comfort for something. It kind of made me happy and sad at the same time because it made me think of you and how your feet were always cold and how good it felt to be the place where you found warmth. Sometimes I still wake up in the middle of the night and expect you to be there. When I remember why you’re not, I can’t get back to sleep and it feels like there’s a pile of bricks on my chest.

I went to the corner shop this evening and bought some cat food.

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Do it during the day and be brazen

The dark blue van made its way along a ribbon of road flanked by calm water and rolling hills that wore snow on their peaks even in March. The breathtaking beauty of the scenery was not wasted on the van’s occupants, who had fallen into a companionable silence as they watched the Highland landscape unfold to the tune of nineties rock crackling through what could barely be described as a sound system. The back of the van was empty apart from a pair of impressively convincing fake license plates, two magnetic signs bearing the name and logo of a Glasgow-based charity that didn’t exist, a few flattened cardboard boxes and a bag with three dark green t-shirts and matching baseball caps.

“Our father, who art in heaven, hollow be thy name. Thy…”

“Jamie,” Hugh took his eyes off the road for long enough to give his nephew a sideways glance, “what are you doing?”

“I’m praying, so God’ll look after us when we’re doing the job.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works, pal. He’s not exactly supportive of our line of work. Besides, you’re praying in the wrong direction. You might have more luck with the guy downstairs.”

“Shut up, Uncle Hugh. You never know.”

“Yeah, ‘Uncle Hugh’. Shut up,” Andie interrupted, nudging Jamie with her shoulder and winking. “Let the wee man talk to the big man if he wants to.”

Hugh shook his head and Jamie bowed his, with as much solemnity as he could manage, returning to his prayer.

“Our father, who art in heaven, hollow be thy name. Thy…”

“Hold on.”

“What, Andie? Will you let me get on with it? We’re nearly there.”

“It’s hallowed be thy name. Hallowed, like holy. Not hollow.”

“Are you sure?”

“Aye, I’m sure. Why would it be hollow?”

“Cause of the Holy Ghost. Ghosts are hollow. And Jesus is dead, so he’s hollow. And actual God, the main one, he’s invisible, so he’s hollow too.”

“Aww, Jamie. No, love. It’s hallowed. I promise.”

“Shite. I’ve been saying that wrong for years then. That’s why it hasn’t been working.”

Hugh shook his head again, grinning. “Aye, that’s why it hasn’t been working.”

Jamie crossed his arms. “Fine, I’ll pray in my head if you’re going to be like that about it. Do you think he’ll still hear me?”

“Yeah,” replied Andie, with a nod and a gentle smile. “Ghosts and dead people and God can all hear you when you’re just saying stuff in your head. If you want them to, I mean. And there’s nothing wrong with talking to any of them if it makes you feel better.”

Turning to crack the window open and light a cigarette, Andie didn’t notice the concerned look that passed between Hugh and Jamie before Jamie returned to his prayer. Hugh sang along under his breath to a song that he remembered hearing on the radio for the first time when he was eight years old.

A few minutes, a few miles, a song and a half, and a cigarette later, Hugh spoke up. “Right, there’s the sign for Fort August. I’m going to pull in just up the road there. I’ll do the plates, you two do the signs, and then we’ll get changed in the back. Alright?”

“What if someone sees us?” asked Jamie, trying to disguise the nerves in his voice and failing miserably.

“No-one’ll see us,” replied Hugh. “We’ll be parked in behind that fishing hut. And we’ll be quick. It’ll be fine. You need to stop worrying so much.”

“I know, I just…it’s not just the van. We’re doing the whole thing in broad daylight. We’ve never done one in the day before.”

“You haven’t. Andie and I have. It’s a different thing from doing it at night but it’s almost easier cause you just look confident and like you’re supposed to be there so no-one questions if you’re legit or not. Rock up at a house in the middle of the night and start loading stuff into a van, and it looks suspicious as hell. Do it during the day and be brazen about it, and no-one even notices. Right, Andie?”

“Totally right,” Andie nodded. “Especially when we have our ‘uniforms’ on. Legit. As. Fuck. It’s all good. And if anyone says anything, we’re picking up donations for a charity shop. We’ve even got a list. Who’s going to argue with that?”

“Aye, I suppose,” replied Jamie, still not sounding entirely convinced. “And we’re only taking the things on the list? And it’ll be quick?”

“Easiest job ever,” said Hugh. “The place’ll definitely be empty, guaranteed. There’s no alarm and there’s a key to the front door under a brick in the greenhouse. Gotta love the trust some people place in the world, eh? Then all we have to do is load up the van with what’s on the list and we’re out of there. Sorted.”

On a crisp, bright mid-March afternoon, no-one even noticed the Glasgow International Aid van turning into the driveway of the house at the end of Chapel Road, Fort August. The uniformed volunteers went about their business, quietly and efficiently carrying a few pieces of furniture and some cardboard boxes of smaller items from the house to the van before locking the front door, returning the key to its hiding place in the greenhouse and leaving as inconspicuously as they arrived.

Once they were through Inverness and evening was creeping in around the edges of the sky, they stopped to take the signs off the van, switch the license plates back and change out of their charity volunteer uniforms. Jamie, with the residual insecurity of a seventeen-year-old who hadn’t quite accepted that he wasn’t a skinny kid in gym class anymore, changed in the cramped space in the back of the van among their haul, facing into a corner. Hugh sat in the front seat and exchanged his green t-shirt for a white one and the black leather jacket that had become a second skin over the decade or so since he’d bought it.

Andie replaced her green t-shirt with a black vest so threadbare that someone with greater concern about their appearance would have disposed of it long ago. She stood by the side of the van, ignoring the growing chill in the air, smoking a cigarette and watching two birds swooping and diving above them together in a dance of carefree abandon.

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All I’ve done since is build walls

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A knife tucked in his boot

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My favourite passive-aggressive compliment

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Like somewhere people escape to

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I was in love with you already

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Proper existential crisis material

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I didn’t know how to fix anything

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How the best things happen in life

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I don’t want any crying, OK?

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You raised me well

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Remember those days as being perfect

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To leave as much behind as she could

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Thanks for everything

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And think about yourself too

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Stone flowers that grow in cold places

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A note from the author

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~

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