Being Frank by Ian Rankin
It wasn’t easy, being Frank.
That’s what everybody called him, when they weren’t calling him a dirty old tramp or a scrounger or a layabout. Frank, they called him. Only the people at the hostel and at the Social Security bothered with his full name: Francis Rossetti Hyslop. Rossetti, he seemed to remember, not after the painter but after his sister the poet, Christina. Most often, a person – a person in authority – would read that name from the piece of paper they were holding and then look up at Frank, not quite in disbelief, but certainly wondering how he’d come so low.
He couldn’t tell them that he was climbing higher all the time. That he preferred to live out of doors. That his face was weatherbeaten, not dirty. That a plastic bag was a convenient place to keep his possessions. He just nodded and shuffled his feet instead, the shuffle which had become his trademark.
‘Here he comes,’ his companions would cry. ‘Here comes The Shuffler!’ Alias Frank, alias Francis Rossetti Hyslop.
He spent much of the spring and autumn in Edinburgh. Some said he was mad, leaving in the summer months. That, after all, was when the pickings were richest. But he didn’t like to bother the tourists, and besides, summer was for travelling. He usually walked north, through Fife and into Kinross or Perthshire, setting up camp by the side of a loch or up in the hills. And when he got bored, he’d move on. He was seldom moved on by gamekeepers or the police. Some of them he knew of old, of course. But others he encountered seemed to regard him more and more as some rare species, or, as one had actually said, a ‘national monument’.
It was true, of course. Tramp meant to walk and that’s what tramps used to do. The term ‘gentleman of the road’ used to be accurate. But the tramp was being replaced by the beggar: young, fit men who didn’t move from the city and who were unrelenting in their search for spare change. That had never been Frank’s way. He had his regulars of course, and often he only had to sit on a bench in The Meadows, a huge grassy plain bordered by tree-lined paths, and wait for the money to appear in his lap.
That’s where he was when he heard the two men talking. It was a bright day, a lunchtime and there were few spaces to be had on the meagre supply of Meadows benches. Frank was sitting on one, arms folded, eyes closed, his legs stretched out in front of him with one foot crossed over the other. His three carrier bags were on the ground beside him, and his hat lay across his legs – not because he was hot especially, but because you never knew who might drop a coin in while you were dozing, or pretending to doze.
Maybe his was the only bench free. Maybe that’s why the men sat down beside him. Well, ‘beside him’ was an exaggeration. They squeezed themselves onto the furthest edge of the bench, as far from him as possible. They couldn’t be comfortable, squashed up like that and the thought brought a moment’s smile to Frank’s face.
But then they started to talk, not in a whisper but with voices lowered. The wind, though, swept every word into Frank’s right ear. He tried not to tense as he listened, but it was difficult. Tried not to move, but his nerves were jangling.
‘It’s war,’ one said. ‘A council of war.’
War? He remembered reading in a newspaper recently about terrorists. Threats. A politician had said something about vigilance. Or was it vigilantes? A council of war: it sounded ominous. Maybe they were teasing him, trying to scare him from the bench so that they could have it for themselves. But he didn’t think so. They were speaking in undertones; they didn’t think he could hear. Or maybe they simply knew that it didn’t matter whether an old tramp heard them or not. Who would believe him?
This was especially true in Frank’s case. Frank believed that there was a worldwide conspiracy. He didn’t know who was behind it, but he could see its tentacles stretching out across the globe. Everything was connected, that was the secret. Wars were connected by arms manufacturers, the same arms manufacturers who made the guns used in robberies, who made the guns used by crazy people in America when they went on the rampage in a shopping-centre or hamburger restaurant. So already you had a connection between hamburgers and dictators. Start from there and the thing just grew and grew.
And because Frank had worked this out, he wondered from time to time if they were after him. The dictators, the arms industry, or maybe even the people who made the buns for the hamburger chains. Because he knew. He wasn’t crazy; he was sure of that.
‘If I was,’ he told one of his regulars, ‘I wouldn’t wonder if I was or not, would I?’
And she’d nodded, agreeing with him. She was a student at the university. A lot of students became regulars. They lived in Tollcross, Marchmont, Morningside, and had to pass through The Meadows on their way to the university buildings in George Square. She was studying psychology, and she told Frank something.
‘You’ve got what they call an active fantasy life.’
Yes, he knew that. He made up lots of things, told himself stories. They whiled away the time. He pretended he’d been an RAF pilot, a spy, minor royalty, a slave-trader in Africa, a poet in Paris. But he knew he was making all these stories up, just as he knew that there really was a conspiracy.
And these two men were part of it.
‘Rhodes,’ one of them was saying now.
A council of war in Rhodes. So there was a Greek connection, too. Well, that made sense. He remembered stories about the generals and their junta. The terrorists were using Greece as their base. And Edinburgh was called the ‘Athens of the north’. Yes! Of course! That’s why they were basing themselves in Edinburgh too. A symbolic gesture. Had to be.
But who would believe him? That was the problem, being Frank. He’d told so many stories in the past, given the police so much information about the conspiracy, that now they just laughed at him and sent him on his way. Some of them thought he was looking for a night in the cells and once or twice they’d even obliged, despite his protests.
No, he didn’t want to spend another night locked up. There was only one thing for it. He’d follow the men and see what he could find. Then he’d wait until tomorrow. They were talking about tomorrow, too, as if it was the start of their campaign. Well, tomorrow was Sunday and with a bit of luck if Frank hung around The Meadows, he’d bump into another of his regulars, one who might know exactly what to do.
Sunday morning was damp, blustery. Not the sort of day for a constitutional. This was fine by John Rebus: it meant there’d be fewer people about on Bruntsfield Links. Fewer men chipping golf-balls towards his head with a wavering cry of ‘Fore!’ Talk about crazy golf! He knew the Links had been used for this purpose for years and years, but all the same there were so many paths cutting through that it was a miracle no one had been killed.
He walked one circuit of the Links, then headed as usual across Melville Drive and into The Meadows. Sometimes he’d stop to watch a kickabout. Other times, he kept his head down and just walked, hoping for inspiration. Sunday was too close to Monday for his liking and Monday always meant a backlog of work. Thinking about it never did any good, of course, but he found himself thinking of little else.
But then The Meadows offered other distractions, too.
‘Sit yourself down.’
Rebus lowered himself onto the bench. ‘You look excited about something.’
Frank nodded briskly. Though he was seated, he shuffled his feet on the earth, making little dance movements. Then he looked around him, as though seeking interlopers.
Oh no, thought Rebus, here we go again.
‘War,’ Frank whispered. ‘I heard two men talking about it.’
Rebus sighed. Talking to Frank was like reading one of the Sunday rags – except sometimes the stories be told were more believable. Today didn’t sound like one of those days.
‘Talking about war? Which war?’
‘Terrorism, Mr Rebus. Has to be. They’ve had a council of war at Rhodes. That’s in Greece.’
‘They were Greek, were they?’
Frank wrinkled his face. ‘I don’t think so. I can give you a description of them though. They were both wearing suits. One was short and bald, the other one was young, taller, with black hair.’
‘You don’t often see international terrorists wearing suits these days, do you?’ Rebus commented. Actually, he thought to himself, that’s a lie: they’re becoming more smartly dressed all the time.
In any case, Frank had an answer ready. ‘Need a disguise though, don’t they? I followed them.’
‘Did you?’ A kickabout was starting nearby. Rebus concentrated on the kick-off. He liked Frank, but there were times… ‘They went to a bed and breakfast near the Links.’
‘Did they now?’ Rebus nodded slowly.
‘And they said it was starting today. Today, Mr Rebus.’
‘They don’t hang about, do they? Anything else?’
Frank frowned, thinking. ‘Something about lavatories, or laboratories. Must have been laboratories, mustn’t it? And money, they talked about that. Money they needed to set it up. That’s about it.’
‘Well, thanks for letting me know, Frank. I’ll keep my ears open, see if I can hear any whispers. But listen, don’t go following people in future. It could be dangerous, understand?’ Frank appeared to consider this. ‘I see what you mean,’ he said at last, ‘but I’m tougher than I look, Mr Rebus.’
Rebus was standing now. ‘Well, I’d better be getting along.’ He slipped his hands into his pockets. The right hand emerged again holding a pound note. ‘Here you go, Frank.’ He began to hand the money over, then withdrew it again. Frank knew what was coming and grinned.
‘Just one question,’ Rebus said, as he always did. ‘Where do you go in the winter?’
It was a question a lot of his cronies asked him. ‘Thought you were dead,’ they’d say each spring as he came walking back into their lives. His reply to Rebus was the same as ever: ‘Ah, that would be telling, Mr Rebus. That’s my secret.’
The money passed from one hand to the other and Rebus sauntered off towards Jawbone Walk, kicking a stone in front of him. Jawbone because of the whale’s jawbone which made an arch at one end of the path. Frank knew that. Frank knew lots of things. But he knew, too, that Rebus hadn’t believed him. Well, more fool him. For over a year now they’d played this little game: where did Frank go in the winter? Frank wasn’t sure himself why he didn’t just say, I go to my sister’s place in Dunbar. Maybe because it was the truth. Maybe because it was a secret.
Rebus looked to him like a man with secrets, too. Maybe one day Rebus would set out for a walk and never return home, would just keep on walking the way Frank himself had done. What was it the girl student had said?
‘Sometimes I think we’re all gentlemen of the road. It’s just that most of us haven’t got the courage to take that first step.’
Nonsense: that first step was the easiest. It was the hundredth, the thousandth, the millionth that was hard. But not as hard as going back, never as hard as that.
Rebus had counted the steps up to his second-floor flat many, many times. It always added up to the same number. So how come with the passing years there seemed to be more? Maybe it was the height of each step that was changing. Own up, John. For once, own up: it’s you that’s changing. You’re growing older and stiffer. You never used to pause on the first-floor landing, never used to linger outside Mrs Cochrane’s door, breathing in that smell unique to blackcurrant bushes and cat-pee.
How could one cat produce that amount of odour? Rebus had seen it many a time: a fat, smug-looking creature with hard eyes. He’d caught it on his own landing, turning guiltily to look at him before sprinting for the next floor up. But it was inside Mrs Cochrane’s door just now. He could hear it mewling, clawing at the carpet, desperate to be outside. He wondered. Maybe Mrs Cochrane was ill? He’d noticed that recently her brass nameplate had become tarnished. She wasn’t bothering to polish it any more. How old was she anyway? She seemed to have come with the tenement, almost as if they’d constructed the thing around her. Mr and Mrs Costello on the top floor had been here nigh-on twenty-five years, but they said she’d been here when they arrived. Same brass nameplate on her door. Different cat, of course, and a husband, too. Well, he’d been dead by the time Rebus and his wife – now ex-wife – had moved here, what, was it ten years ago now?
Getting old, John. Getting old. He clamped his left hand onto the bannister and somehow managed the last flight of steps to his door.
He started a crossword in one of the newspapers, put some jazz on the hi-fi, drank a pot of tea. Just another Sunday. Day of rest. But he kept catching glimpses of the week ahead. No good. He made another pot of tea and this time added a dollop of J&B to the mixture in his mug. Better. And then, naturally, the doorbell rang.
Jehovah’s Witnesses. Well, Rebus had an answer ready for them. A friend in the know had said that Roman Catholics are taught how to counter the persuasive arguments of the JWs. Just tell them you’re a Catholic and they’ll go away.
‘I’m Catholic,’ he said. They didn’t go away. There were two of them, dressed in dark suits. The younger one stood a little behind the older one. This didn’t matter, since he was a good foot taller than his elder. He was holding a briefcase. The chief, however, held only a piece of paper. He was frowning, glancing towards this. He looked at Rebus, sizing him up, then back to the paper. He didn’t appear to have heard what Rebus said.
‘I’m Catholic,’ Rebus repeated, but hollowly.
The man shook his head. Maybe they were foreign missionaries, come to convert the heathen. He consulted his scrap of paper again.
‘I think this is the wrong address,’ he said. ‘There isn’t a Mr Bakewell here?’
‘Bakewell?’ Rebus started to relax. A simple mistake; they weren’t JWs. They weren’t salesmen or cowboy builders or tinkers. Simply, they’d got the wrong flat. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No Mr Bakewell here. And his tart’s not here either.’
Oh, they laughed at that. Laughed louder than Rebus had expected. They were still laughing as they made their apologies and started back downstairs. Rebus watched them until they were out of sight. He’d stopped laughing almost before they’d begun. He checked that his keys were in his pocket, then slammed shut his door – but with himself still out on the landing.
Their footsteps sent sibilant echoes up towards the skylight. What was it about them? If pressed, he couldn’t have said. There was just something. The way the smaller, older man had seemed to weigh him up in a moment, then mentioned Bakewell. The way the younger man had laughed so heartily, as if it were such a release. A release of what? Tension, obviously.
The footsteps had stopped. Outside Mrs Cochrane’s door. Yes, that was the ting-ting-ting of her antiquated doorbell, the kind you pulled, tightening and releasing the spring on a bell inside the door. The door which was now being pulled open. The older man spoke.
‘Mrs Cochrane?’ Well, they’d got that name right. But then it was on her nameplate, wasn’t it? Anyone could have guessed at it.
‘Aye.’ Mrs Cochrane, Rebus knew, was not unique in making this sound not only questioning but like a whole sentence. Yes, I’m Mrs Cochrane, and who might you be and what do you want?
Councillor! No, no, there was no problem: Rebus had paid his Poll Tax, always put his bin-bags out the night before, never earlier. They might be after Bakewell, but Rebus was in the clear.
‘It’s about the roadworks.’
‘Roadworks?’ echoed Mrs Cochrane.
Roadworks? thought Rebus.
‘Yes, roadworks. Digging up the roads. You made a complaint about the roads. I’ve come to talk to you about it.’
‘Roadworks? Here, you mean?’
He was patient, Rebus had to grant him that. ‘That’s right, Mrs Cochrane. The road outside.’
There was a bit more of this, then they all went indoors to talk over Mrs Cochrane’s grievances’. Rebus opened his own door and went in, too. Then, realising, he slapped his hand against his head. These were the two men Shuffling Frank had been talking about! Of course they were, only Frank had misheard: council of war was Councillor Waugh; Rhodes was roads. What else had Frank said? Something about money: well, that might be the money for the repairs. That it was all planned to start on Sunday: and here they were, on Sunday, ready to talk to the residents about roadworks.
What roadworks? The road outside was clear, and Rebus hadn’t heard any gossip concerning work about to start. Something else Frank had heard them say. Lavatories or laboratories. Of course, his own cherished conspiracy theory had made him plump for ‘laboratories’, but what if he’d misheard again? Where did lavatories fit into the scheme? And if, as seemed certain, these were the two men, what was a local councillor doing staying at a bed and breakfast? Maybe he owned it, of course. Maybe it was run by his wife.
Rebus was a couple of paces further down his hall when it hit him. He stopped dead. Slow, John, slow. Blame the whisky, maybe. And Jesus, wasn’t it so obvious when you thought of it? He went back to his door opened it quietly, and slipped out onto the landing.
There was no such thing as silent movement on an Edinburgh stairwell. The sound of shoe on stone, a sound like sandpaper at work, was magnified and distorted, bouncing off the walls upwards and downwards. Rebus slipped off his shoes and left them on his landing, then started downstairs. He listened outside Mrs Cochrane’s door. Muffled voices from the living-room. The layout of her flat was the same as Rebus’s own: a long hallway off which were half a dozen doors, the last of which – actually around a corner – led to the living-room. He crouched down and pushed open the letterbox. The cat was just inside the door and it swiped at him with its paw. He let the hinge fall back.
Then he tried the doorhandle, which turned. The door opened. The cat swept past him and down the stairs. Rebus began to feel that the odds were going his way. The door was open just wide enough to allow him to squeeze inside. Open it an inch or two further, he knew, and it creaked with the almightiest groan. He tiptoed into the hallway. Councillor Waugh’s voice boomed from the living-room.
‘Bowel trouble. Terrible in a man so young.’
Yes, he’d no doubt be explaining why his assistant was taking so long in the lavatory: that was the excuse they always made. Well, either that or a drink of water. Rebus passed the toilet. The door wasn’t locked and the tiny closet was empty. He pushed open the next door along – Mrs Cochrane’s bedroom. The young man was closing the wardrobe doors.
‘Well,’ said Rebus, ‘I hope you didn’t think that was the toilet.’
The man jerked around. Rebus filled the doorway. There was no way past him; the only way to get out was to go through him, and that’s what the man tried, charging at the doorway, head low. Rebus stood back a little, giving himself room and time, and brought his knee up hard, aiming for the bridge of the nose but finding mouth instead. Well, it was an imprecise science, wasn’t it? The man flew backwards like a discarded ragdoll and fell onto the bed. Flat out, to Rebus’s satisfaction.
They’d heard the noise of course, and the ‘councillor’ was already on his way. But he, too, would need to get past Rebus to reach the front door. He stopped short. Rebus nodded slowly.
‘Very wise,’ he said. ‘Your colleague’s going to need some new teeth when he wakes up. I’m a police officer by the way. And you, “councillor”, are under arrest.’
‘Arresting the councillor?’ This from Mrs Cochrane, who had appeared in the hall.
‘He’s no more a councillor than I am, Mrs Cochrane. He’s a conman. His partner’s been raking through your bedroom.’
‘What?’ She went to look.
‘Bakewell,’ Rebus said, smiling. They would try the same ruse at every door where they didn’t fancy their chances. Sorry, wrong address, and on to the next potential sucker until they found someone old enough or gullible enough. Rebus was trying to remember if Mrs Cochrane had a telephone. Yes, there was one in her living-room, wasn’t there? He gestured to his prisoner.
‘Let’s go back into the living-room,’ he said. Rebus could call the station from there…
Mrs Cochrane was back beside him. ‘Blood on my good quilt,’ she muttered. Then she saw that Rebus was in his stocking-soles. ‘You’ll get chilblains, son,’ she said. ‘Mark my words. You should take better care of yourself. Living on your own like that. You need somebody to look after you. Mark my words. He told me he was a councillor. Would you credit it? And me been wanting to talk to them for ages about the dogs’ mess on the Links.’
‘Mr Rebus! Day off is it? Don’t usually see you around here during the week.’
Frank was back on his bench, a newspaper spread out on his lap. One of yesterday’s papers. It contained a story about some black magic conspiracy in the United States. Wealthy people, it was reckoned, influential people, taking part in orgies and rituals. Yes, and the arms manufacturers would be there, too. That’s how they got to know the politicians and the bankers. It all connected.
‘No, I’m off to work in a minute. Just thought I’d stop by. Here.’ He was holding out a ten-pound note. Frank looked at it suspiciously, moved his hand towards it, and took it. What? Didn’t Rebus even want to ask him the question?
‘You were right,’ Rebus was saying. ‘What you told me about those two men, dead right. Well, nearly dead right. Keep your ears open, Frank. And in future, I’ll try to keep my ears open when you talk to me.’
And then he turned and was walking away, back across the grass towards Marchmont. Frank stared at the money. Ten pounds. Enough to finance another long walk. He needed a long walk to clear his head. Now that they’d had the council of war at Rhodes, the laboratories would be making potions for satanic rituals. They’d put the politicians in a trance, and… No, no, it didn’t bear thinking about.
‘Mr Rebus!’ he called. ‘Mr Rebus! I go to my sister’s! She lives in Dunbar! That’s where I go in the winter!’
But if the distant figure heard him, it made no sign. Just kept on walking. Frank shuffled his feet. Ten pounds would buy a transistor radio, or a pair of shoes, a jacket, or a new hat, maybe a little camping stove. That was the problem with having money: you ended up with decisions to make. And if you bought anything, where would you put it? He’d need either to ditch something, or to start on another carrier-bag. That was the problem, being Frank.