[This transcript is incomplete, in that the recording seems to have been damaged before it was recovered. The answers from the subject are clear, however the questions posed to her by the interviewer have been distorted, and obscured by a high-pitched sound. Audio analysis has been delayed by an unexpected personnel problem in the forensic lab. Until that can be resolved, only the answers are presented here.]
Do I talk into that? Just sit and talk normally? Aye, normally? Hah. Been a while since I did anything normally, but OK. So, will we get started?
Glad to meet you too, and before we start, let me say I think it’s a pure shame how you dinnae work for the Independent any more. Aye, I did use to read your column, before, when I had an office job. Used to read it on the train. So aye, that’s one of the reasons I agreed to do this interview with you.
Now, right, why here? I couldnae come in to your office to talk to you, because I dinnae go into any building with only one exit. Not any more. I suggested Waxy’s because there’s an exit both sides, and it’s handy like for the station—I need to run off for a train after.
No, to London. I know, that’ll be Central Station. It is further away, but I’ll make it. When you live like this, timing is everything, right enough. You budget every moment of rest, like you budget every penny. There’s a reason for that.
I’ll get to it, dinnae worry. Look, this human interest story you’ve been given to write, about the crazy travelling woman always on the move: it’s fluff. It’s pure garbage. You’re better than that. You’re a proper journalist. So I’m gonnae give you the real story. If you cannae use it now, maybe your editor can run it for Halloween.
First, did you ever hear about Black Shuck? It’s a legend, you might have heard different variants of it. People used to say when you’re out walking at night, you might see a big black dug following you, a ghostly big thing. People have told how it follows them for miles, padding along behind, just out of sight or just barely visible in the fog, sometimes just the sound of a dug’s feet trotting up behind you, with nothing to see. Never quite catching up, but you cannae shake him off. That’s him, Black Shuck.
Aye, exactly, a harbinger of death. Couldnae have put it better. So people would tell the tale of how they were followed by Black Shuck, and later on they die, and that’s how the story grows. But you must be thinking, like me, that was the old days, right? Easy enough for a story like that to get started. People saw lots of things back then, or were ready to believe they did, and people die suddenly for a lot of reasons, even now.
So there’s the Halloween part of your story, right there. Or part of it, a bit of mythology or a historical background. There’s a wee twist to it, though, as it applies to me and my life.
Here goes then. I’d say it started about four years ago. I was out for a run, early in the morning before work, and I went past the graveyard. I always felt kind of strange near that place. I wasn’t feart of it exactly. The gothic feel of it even drew me, which was why I often ran that way. But when I was close by, it bothered me.
You know how there are some places that feel different? I want to say it’s like nostalgia, but it’s no like you’ve been there before. It’s no like it reminds you of your childhood or anything. It’s more like something about the place feels like a dream you once had. It has that feel: personal significance.
The graveyard had that, for me, and something else, something creepy—like, somebody was always standing there, watching me run past.
Anyway, that time, I stopped. I had to, because my laces came loose. Cheap trainers. So instead of keeping on running as usual, I stopped to tie them up again. Then one lace broke, and I had to pull it out and re-thread the longest piece, to get me home. All the time, the feeling of being watched got stronger and stronger. I looked around, but naebody was there. Wind blowing, a few leaves on the ground. I stood there and faced it, trying to get a grip on it.
Normally, yeah, I’d say it was something psychological like that. In terms of things that are hard to get used to, things that can prey on your mind subconsciously, mortality’s the big one, right enough. But there are others. Guilt, regret, things like that. And I’d seen my mother and my wee sister put away no long before. Still, we find a way to get on with our lives, right?
Naw, at the crematorium. Burial’s expensive. Anyway, I dinnae think that graveyard has been in use for a while now.
So I stood there trying to pinpoint this feeling, waiting for the traumatic memory or the existential dread, or even something stupit like realising I was worrying about a deadline at work. You know how it can be. We dinnae always have a sense of proportion.
Nothing. I dinnae know what I was expecting. A breakthrough or something. Then as I turned away, it felt like something moved behind me. I turned back, nothing there. I blinked, and then for that wee flash while my eyes were shut, I thought I saw a big dark shape coming towards me along the row of gravestones. Like a huge dug. I backed away, staring at that empty patch of grass, and I couldnae see it any more. There wasnae a dug or any other kind of animal there But I could still feel it. It was still looking at me.
I ran home to get a shower and changed for work. It was a cold morning, but the sweat was running down my back. And while I was at work, I kept feeling the same thing, that whatever it was was getting closer. I couldnae concentrate. I told my manager I had a headache, and went to the lifts to head home. And standing there, I could feel it looking up at me from down below. I got in the lift, and felt the thing underneath me lurch upwards. I panicked, hit the door open button, ran for the stairs instead. There was another woman in the lift with me, and she must have thought I was mental. I ran like I was mental, jumping down the last few steps on each flight. Half way down to the ground floor, I thought I heard a scream. Not sure.
Naw, I never went back. I couldnae. I got home as fast as I could, and as I got further away, the feeling got weaker. By the time I was home, it seemed distant, unbelievable, like I’d had a bad dream. I tried to calm down, had a bath, a wee drink. Went to sleep at last around midnight. At four in the morning, I felt it again. Far away, but slowly getting closer. Looking at me, or looking for me.
I couldnae sleep, so I paced around. The feeling kept getting worse. When I couldnae stand it any more, I went out. Called in sick to my work at 9am from a cafe on the other side of town.
Ever since then, I’ve had to keep moving around. I signed off sick with stress for a few weeks, then I had to give up my job. I slept on different friends’ couches until I ran out of excuses. Eventually I gave up the house. I can only sleep on night buses and long-distance coaches, and when I can afford it, trains. Anything that’s moving. I tried going to doctors, and somewhere along the way they stopped calling it stress and started calling it a breakdown. I started believing that, for a while.
No any more, naw.
For two reasons. First of all, I got proof that it was real, and second, that’s what broke me down. So if that’s what a breakdown is, aye, I’m broken now, but I didnae start out that way. I’m no just seeing things.
Fair question. It’s more a feeling than seeing things. You ever get that thing when someone whispers right in your ear? A kind of crawling all down your neck? Like that. A sense of direction, attention centred on me. I feel all the hairs on my skin are lining up like iron filings round a magnet. I’m at one pole, and the other pole is always following, drawn after me. The closer it is, the more solid it feels. With my eyes shut, when it’s really close, I can just about see the outline of it.
A dug? Aye, a bit. But more like a hyena. Big, slouching, misshapen. And kind of diffuse, tendrils of it stretching out. A hyena made of snakes. Faceless, but always looking right at me. I dinnae like to let it get anywhere near that close.
You serious? I dinnae need to know what it wants. A woman should know better than ask a question like that. If you’re out late, walking somewhere unfamiliar, and there’s some guy staring at you—or worse, following you—what do you assume? Attention is intention. Every prey animal knows that. Every prey animal that’s no gonnae be some other animal’s dinner had better know that. That kind of stupit question’s why I finally stopped going to see doctors about it. Facing my fears and seeing they’re no real, aye, that’ll be right. A nice wee tranquilizer and a locked room to make sure I face my fears, that’d be the next thing.
It’d be the last thing. Fuck that.
Naw, it’s OK. I’m no angry with you, I’m a bit tired, a bit on edge. Always on edge. It’s no much of an excuse, you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But we’ve got a wee while before my train, and anyway you have to hear the rest of the story.
I’d no been coping well, or getting enough sleep, and my money was running out. I’d also been drinking too much. I’d always liked a wee glass of wine, or a wee bottle of wine. I’d had a few too many, and was dead on my feet, so I stopped in a park, sat on a bench next to the swings and tried to look like I was taking a wee lunch break out the office like a normal person, like I used to do. Tried no to look like a homeless mental alkie. I still felt that thing coming closer, but I was so tired, I fell asleep watching the kids playing, and people walking their dogs and throwing bread to the ducks. It seemed so normal. It just didnae seem like a place where anything bad could get me.
Naw, maybe it should have got me. That’s what I think now, sometimes. I woke up to screams. Children, and their mothers. I can’t describe it. I can’t think about it any more. That’s when I knew what a breakdown was, and that’s how I knew it wasn’t my imagination. I ran, and kept running until I didn’t know where I was, and I havenae touched a drop since.
That’s why I’m drinking tea the now instead of a wee glass of red. I cannae be careless any more. I cannae stop and I cannae let it catch me. I dinnae know why it wants me, or exactly what it would do to me. But I saw close up what it’s like. I know there’ll be terror, and I know it’ll hurt. I know how it can hurt other people.
You can look that incident up if you don’t believe me. Yes, that’s the park. But auld Shuck’s not solid enough, real enough maybe, to do that all the time. Only when it gets close to me. That’s another reason I keep moving. I have to stay far enough ahead so it doesnae leave a trail of dead bystanders. More innocents, more children.
After that, guilt and desperation took me. I’d sold the house, sold my jewellery, everything I owned. I was begging, asking around at churches and charities, looking for odd jobs I could do. I’ve got skills, in fact I’m way overqualified for any of the work I got. Trouble was, there’s no way to be an entrepeneur with no fixed address. I needed to eat, and I needed to move. No way to get and hold down a job, no way to claim benefits.
What do you think I did? I’m no proud of it, but I’d sold everything else, so why not that? That was a low point—I dinnae do that any more. It opened up other employment opportunities, but, once I got to know a few people. I looked for chances to courier stuff long distances. Drugs mostly, sometimes stolen goods, and the best part was, I could clean up very nice, and sit on a train from Manchester or London reading my paper, pretending I was still an engineer. Police never looked at me twice, and some of them had seen me no two weeks before and moved me on, draggled and stary-eyed mental that I was.
Like I said, you find a way to get on with your life. You look for things you can control. I used to solve problems for a living, or thought I did. They were stupit wee business problems, no life-or-death. So I applied myself to this problem, and now I solve it every day for a living, literally. I know roughly how fast Shuck moves, what he can go through, what he has to go round. He goes faster along a route he’s been before recently, or one I have. It amounts to about the same thing. That’s why I need to vary my routine, and plan ahead. I stop in different towns, sleep on different buses. I budget my time and watch my exits so I dinnae have to risk running down any more stairs, where I might turn my ankle, or worse.
I’m alright, just tired. I’ll get a wee nap on the train soon enough.
It did get to me though, more and more, however much I pretended I was on top of it. After a delivery one day, I started asking myself what I was becoming. Who I was helping by running drugs? Who was I hurting? Maybe innocents and children after all. Was it worth it to keep running, or better to just end it?
Naw, I couldn’t let Shuck catch me. No that. Never that. But I thought about eating a handful of pills, or tying a rope to a tree in the park, or stepping off the platform in front of an express. I was so tired.
I’m still here aren’t I? For one thing, Shuck can fuck off. It’s no my time yet, so why should I do his job for him? But what scared me more was if I fucked it up, and ended up in hospital, too injured or sick to run. You take that chance too, any time you go into hospital, that you’ll no come out. Some superbug or junior doctor no thinking straight at the end of a 24-hour shift could finish you off even if you go in for a sprained ankle. But me, it’s no a chance—it’s a certainty. If I ever go into the hospital, I’m coming out again in a box.
So aye, you can see I turned it around. All dressed up smart, and ready for my trip to London. Nice skirt suit, professional-looking backpack and briefcase. The trainers are a bit of a mismatch, but at least I dinnae buy cheap ones any more—and no laces. Velcro every time, in case I need to run. Learned my lesson there, right?
Naw, nae bother—you can ask me anything. You’re a proper journalist and that, or used to be. I’m not carrying drugs or anything else illegal today. Just popping down to London to collect a payment.
Well, that’s a delicate question, we’ll come to that. We havenae reached that part of the story.
I was depressed, and desperate, and found myself wandering along a street in my home town, when I realised I was near where my step-dad lived. He was … there’s a whole other story to that, which is none of your business.
I know I said you can ask me anything. Disnae mean I’ll answer.
That was me, then, sitting down in a bus-shelter across the street from the bastard’s house. Just waiting, and trying to pretend to myself I didn’t know what I was waiting for. It got dark, and I saw the light go on in his living room. Still waiting. I felt that crawling sensation, getting closer, coming along the road. In the dark I could see a kind of ripple in the shadows between the yellow sodium lamps. Then I got up, walked over the road, through the garden gate, and sneaked round the back to stand in the darkness of the garden. I stayed there until I heard the screaming begin.
Is it, though? Murder, I mean? I never touched him.
That’s your opinion. Call the polis on me, if you like. I looked up the old bastard’s obituary and it only said, “suddenly, at home.” There isn’t even a case number, let alone any evidence.
That night was a turning point, of sorts. That was the night I turned my situation around, put my inner demons away, shrugged off some of the ghosts from my past. After all, I dinnae need any metaphorical demons, right? That night, the hunted became a hunter. Although, that’s only partly true. I’m still the hunted. Always will be hunted.
It was more than a breakthrough—it was a new line of work. Might as well put it to use, I thought. I knew people who knew other people who wanted things taken care of, you know.
Obviously, all I know is they’re folk that other folk want rid of. I dinnae ask for the details. I get the feeling they’re usually pure scumbags that’ve been asking for it. Usually.
But it pays well, well enough that I dinnae ever worry about having to hitch-hike again, standing there with my thumb out watching all the traffic stream past—ignoring me—and feeling Shuck crawling up after me through the rain. That alone makes it no a very hard decision at all.
That’s the thing, see. Nobody knows how I do it. Actually, nobody knows I’m even the one that does it at all, a wee lassie like me. I just tell some guy in a pub, “that can be arranged,” and then come back after to get the other half of the money when it’s done. I can ask for a high price because I never fail, and I never leave a trail. Reliability means a lot to criminal scum—it’s a rare commodity in they circles, you could say.
But I didnae answer your first question, no in full. Let’s come back to that now.
You see, this interview had to be with you. I always respected the work you did before they gave you the shove. That was a shame. That piece you did on Lord R, a real old-fashioned bit of journalistic leg-work. No cheap smears, no lazy innuendo, just hard questions and hard digging for the answers.
You’re welcome, I mean it. But I wanted to tell you one more thing before this interview ends, because I think you’ve earned it, and I hope you can appreciate it for what it’s worth: you were on the right track the whole time.
The whole scandal, cover-up, dodgy deals, maybe worse than you suspected, and certainly worse than your editor would’ve let you print. Lord R was in it all up to his fat neck. And you have to know, or at least suspect, you got the heave-ho from your job because you were getting too close to it, even if all you had so far couldnae be confirmed and the paper wouldnae ever risk printing it. That’s what happens when you do a job like yours too well: you make enemies. You made enemies.
So, I’m sorry. I wish this latest job hadnae been you.
It’s right behind you.
[The transcript ends here.]