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Ranald McGhie wanted to slap the lawyer sitting across the table from him. Acutely aware of his threadbare cuffs; he pulled at the sleeves of his charity-shop tweed jacket in a vain attempt to disguise them.
The lawyer, who looked like he'd just stepped out of a shop window – Harrods or some other temple to consumerism – had hardly glanced at Ranald since he'd sat down. In fact, the man's whole demeanour was of someone keen to scrape a lump of shit from the sole of his shoe and hurry onto his next task.
'... the library was Mr Fitzpatrick's chief concern. And given the paucity of his living relatives, he was most anxious that you understand the enormity of the task it represents.'
'Mr ...' Ranald began, pretending that he'd forgotten the man's name.
'Mr Quinn, how about you get to the point and save us both a lot of time?' Ranald took pleasure in pricking the man's pomposity. He was probably from Pollock and had managed to get himself a law degree and a cushy number working with the elderly relics at one of Glasgow's oldest law firms, thinking this meant he was more important than everyone who didn't work at the Bar.
'I'm explaining' – he huffed – 'Mr Fitzpatrick's last wishes, Mr McGhie.'
'Aye. But who exactly is Mr Fitzpatrick and why exactly have you dragged me in here?'
The lawyer sat back in his chair, a note of surprise on his face. 'Mr Alexander Fitzpatrick of the Fitzpatricks. One of the oldest merchant families in the city. Your mother, Helena McGhie née Fitzpatrick, was his niece.'
'She was what?' Ranald sat forwards in his chair. 'I think someone's been selling you a load of shite, mate. My mother's name was Helen.' Ranald was a young man of considerable education and intellect, but, when faced with snobbery, he always found himself reverting to his working-class, Anglo-Saxon roots, reacting in an in-your-face, take-me-or-leave-me, kind of way.
Quinn opened a file and leafed through some papers until he found what he was looking for. He pushed the file across the desk towards Ranald.
'She dropped the "a" from her name. She thought "Helen" was better suited to her more ...' he struggled for the right word '... prosaic circumstances.'
Ranald resisted the impulse to tell the man to shut up with his 'prosaic circumstances'; in fact he was more struck by the suggestion that his mother was from money. He opened his mouth, but the lawyer was handing him another document.
'This is her birth certificate. She was born on the 8th of November 1952. At the age of nineteen she met and fell in love with your father, an unemployed artist, Gordon McGhie. She became pregnant and, against the wishes of her family, went to live with McGhie.'
My dad was an artist? thought Ranald. Where the hell did Quinn get that notion? His father was a bricklayer, displayed no artistic tendencies whatsoever and decried – with a good deal of swearing – the notion Ranald had, as a teen, that he wanted to be a writer. But he and Mum went and died when Ranald was eighteen, so couldn't exactly stop him.
Ranald took a moment to think through the timeline of events. Mum met Dad when she was nineteen and fell pregnant. But he wasn't born until 1988. What happened to that first pregnancy? As if Ranald had asked the question out loud, Quinn answered:
'That first child was stillborn, Mr McGhie. And your mother distanced herself so thoroughly from the family that we have no idea why she waited so long to have you.
'Mr Fitzpatrick kept a keen eye on you as you grew up. He often talked about you as the one that got away.' The lawyer grew thoughtful. 'He envied you your simple life, Mr McGhie.'
'Got away? My simple life?' Ranald was roused from his confusion. 'Living for months at a time with no income? Eating nothing but tins of beans and plain bread because my parents left me with nothing?' He was angry now: all that time he'd had a relative who was loaded – knew the difficulties he was in and did nothing to help.
'Still. You were safe. Dry. Not on the street.' Quinn raised an eyebrow.
'How the hell do you know that? How do you know any of this?'
'From time to time, Mr Fitzpatrick would ... ah ... check in.'
'Check in? What the hell does that mean?'
'He was delighted that you resisted the allure of a steady income and instead, followed your compulsion to work in the arts.'
'I write educational textbooks. That's hardly the arts.'
'You write for a living, do you not? And you had that poetry collection published: The Unkindness of Crows. 2012 wasn't it?'
'It was a pamphlet. And, again, how do you know all this?' 'Mr Fitzpatrick would ask us...'
'... to check on me.' Ranald ran his right hand through his hair. What the hell? Had he just dropped into the pages of a Dickens novel? Was there a camera crew hidden behind those oak panels? He needed to make some sense of all of this.
'He was saddened that you went off the rails slightly when your parents died, and he was concerned about your subsequent mental-health issues.' Quinn paused. It was clear that this wasn't because he worried he was being indelicate; he was simply checking his memory for the facts. 'Have you continued with the medication?'
'None of your business.' Ranald bristled. 'You mentioned a library?'
'Yes.' Quinn sat back in his chair as if relieved the conversation was back on a track he had rehearsed. 'He has ... sorry, had, an extensive collection of books. One of the finest in the city, and he wanted you to look after it.' He placed his hands on the oak desk in front of him. 'It's a real treasure trove. Worth a fortune, I believe.'
Ranald thought about his one-bedroom flat above a chip shop in Shawlands. The aromas that would soon coat this 'treasure trove' of books, reducing their value considerably. As if reading his thoughts, Quinn continued.
'The library is not to be moved from the house. Mr Fitzpatrick was explicit in his instructions. Therefore, he has also left the house to you. He set up a trust fund to ensure that the utility bills would be paid. And the council tax. And there is an old couple who have been tending to the house and the gardens. Money has been set aside to pay their wages. But I'm afraid there's no extra for you personally, Mr McGhie. You will have a house, entirely free of cost, but you will have to continue in your endeavours as a writer.'
'I have a house?'
'You have a very large house.'
Ranald exhaled, his mind a whirl. He tried to picture his mother. To his shame, all he could see was her long dark hair and the point of her chin. She was from money?
'I have a house.'
'The fact may bear repeating, Mr McGhie,' Quinn said with a half-smile.
By Christ it does, thought Ranald. He could sell it. Buy that gîte he'd always fancied living in, over in Brittany. Write that novel he'd always promised himself he would write and say goodbye to all that educational crap.
'You won't be able to sell the house, Mr McGhie,' Quinn said, interrupting his thoughts – once more appearing to read them. 'It's owned by the family trust, of which I am one of the trustees. We're bound by law to ensure Mr Fitzpatrick's wishes are carried out to the letter.'
'But I can live there?'
'That is one of the conditions of access to the library.' Quinn's slow nod added importance to his words. 'It will be yours until you die, and then Mr Fitzpatrick hoped one of your issue would take over.'
One of my issue, Ranald repeated to himself. At this stage having 'issue' was highly unlikely. He'd never managed to keep a woman longer than two years. His ex-wife, Martie, regularly told him he was an easy man to fall in love with but a difficult man to stay with. Apparently he'd always had a remoteness, making him unable to commit fully to a relationship. Women sensed that, Martie would say, and it made them feel insecure.
Yeah, well, he would respond, when your wife has you sectioned, it kinda puts the spokes in the whole trust thing.
To which she would reply: If you're at the end of your tether and your husband is at the far end of an A-line roof over a twenty-foot drop, you need to do something.
It was an argument they had replayed several times. He'd known he was in the wrong, that he needed help; but still, being sectioned ... by his own wife?
And because of this, Ranald was never able to completely trust Martie properly again, despite the fact that he was still in love with her.
His mind placed him back there, in that moment when he was balanced on the roof. He was invincible, he could affect the weather, he could have taken on God. Just a few months of pull-ups and push-ups and he would have had the strength to fly, he was sure of it. Truth be told, he envied that guy, now. Wished he would turn up more often, instead of this whiny, worthless version most people ended up meeting.
'Mr Fitzpatrick regretted that you never managed to stay married.' Quinn interrupted his thoughts. 'But he hoped that the medicine, and maturity might —'
'What? He even knew about the state of my relationships?' And about the drugs, he added silently.
'As I said ...'
'He checked in.'
Ranald studied Quinn's expression. This was real. This was all actually real. He had a house. He had a huge library. It must be huge, right? If this old fella was making such a fuss about it.
Quinn opened a drawer on the right side of his desk and pulled out a small brown envelope. He put it on the desk and pushed it across to Ranald.
'The key,' Quinn said, quite simply. 'There is a small piece of card inside with the address of your new home written on it.'
Ranald paused before picking up the envelope. Were the camera crew about to burst in now? The room remained still. The only noises from outside the room were the low hum of conversation and the clicks of a computer keyboard.
He opened the envelope, expecting a fanfare of trumpets. But the key was a small, insignificant thing. Cold to the touch. He read the address: Bearsden. A posh part of town.
'Everything you could want is in your new home, Mr McGhie. But if you want to move any of your ...' Quinn actually sniffed. '... Your belongings from your flat in Shawlands, we can arrange for a removal van for you.'
'That's very kind of you, Mr Quinn,' Ranald said, emphasising the word 'kind' but meaning the opposite.
'The house is ready for you, Mr McGhie,' Quinn said with a note of relief. 'You can move in today. You'll find the housekeeper and the gardener – Mr and Mrs Hackett – have everything prepared. They're a pleasant couple. Worked for the family for years.'
Ranald sank into his chair, now weirdly reluctant to move. He even wanted the pompous old fool in front of him to keep on talking.
'You mentioned a ... "paucity" of relatives? I'm it, then?' he asked.
'Mr Fitzpatrick kept an eye on all of you. You were deemed to be the most suitable for the task.'
All of you.
'Will any of the others challenge the will?' Ranald asked. He had a whole other family he knew nothing about. Should the fact that Fitzpatrick rated him his best option mean he should also discount them?
'They have been adequately provided for by the trust, Mr McGhie. None of the others actually wanted the house. They are all well taken care of in the housing department. In fact, most of them see Newton Hall as a white elephant.'
Newton Hall. The house had a name?
'Can I meet them?' Ranald asked.
A buzzer sounded on Quinn's desk and a look of relief passed over his face. 'That's my next appointment, Mr McGhie. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ...'
He stood up, and Ranald, with reluctance, followed suit. Quinn walked to his door and opened it. He held out a hand as Ranald reached him. His grip was tight, his hand cold. His voice low.
'My advice: Enjoy the house. Forget your new relatives. Mr Fitzpatrick didn't have a good word to say about any of them.'
On autopilot, Ranald found himself standing in front of the shiny aluminium door of the lift. He stared at his blurred reflection and then at the buttons on the panel as if unsure where they might take him.
A tiny, elderly lady – powdered face, hair piled high on her head, large pearl earrings – stretched out her hand and pressed a button.
'Going down, son?' she asked, looking up at him with an expression of concern.
'Aye,' he answered, most of his attention still in Quinn's office.
A musical note sounded and the doors opened. Ranald paused to allow the woman to enter before him. He followed. She pressed another button and the lift began its ponderous descent to the lobby.
Bugger me. A house. No, not a house. Newton Hall in Bearsden.
The doors pinged open. Before the old lady walked out, she reached out a hand and gripped Ranald's forearm. With a mournful expression, she said, 'Just remember, son, however bad you're feeling right now, all this will pass.' She offered him a smile. 'Look after yourself, eh?' And with her pronouncement made, she turned and walked smartly to the front door.
Ranald followed her with his eyes.
All this will pass? What the hell was she going on about?
Then he thought about where he had come from. The dazed expression he was undoubtedly wearing. The old dear must have thought he was dealing with some bereavement. The lift doors sounded a warning they were about to close. He jumped out before they did and made his way out of the building and onto the street.
He was greeted by a burst of noise. Buses and taxis motored past. Crowds of people bustling through that present minute of their lives.
The sun was shining. He turned his face up to it and felt the heat; had that mournful, Scottish thought that this moment was the only summer they might enjoy. He shouldered off his tweed jacket. What had he been thinking? That some stuffy lawyer would be impressed by it, rather than by his usual Superdry waterproof?
Ranald looked to his right at Central Station, then turned to his left and faced the shopping mecca that was Buchanan Street. While he had been inside talking with Quinn, finding out that his life was about to change, the rest of the world had been sailing on, taking absolutely no notice.
He palmed his trouser pocket to locate his phone. He pulled it out and pressed a number. It was answered quickly.
'What's up, Ran?' The familiar voice filled his ear.
'You're never going to believe this ...' he began and only then noted the sense of excitement he was feeling.
Once he'd arranged a meeting and hung up, the thought occurred to him: the first person he'd decided to call – out of everyone he knew – was Martie.
He turned around and began to walk towards the train station. But he couldn't remember the last time he'd been to Bearsden. How did he even get there?
By now he had come to the junction where Gordon Street met Renfield Street, and there, in front of the green Victorian portico at the station entrance, was a line of taxis. He was going to be saving five hundred a month on rent; surely he could afford to take a taxi on this occasion?
There was a small queue of onward travellers waiting patiently for their rides. He stood behind a family: mum, dad and two-point-four children. The point-four child was an infant in a papoose-type arrangement fastened to its father's chest; looked like it was only weeks old. Tiny head covered in a dark fluff. Eyes screwed shut. Mouth pursed in a dream-filled pout.
It wasn't like him to notice such things. His default position was to look at kids and adopt the warding-off stance of a vampire hunter.
He felt his connection to the ground. Noticed his head was higher than normal. So this was what a good mood felt like? He had been in such a rush for his 9:00 am appointment that morning he'd forgotten to take his happy pill. Should he ask the taxi driver to take a detour to his flat in Shawlands so he could collect it?
Nah, one day off the meds shouldn't cause him any problems, surely?
A memory of the first couple of weeks he'd been on these current pills flashed into his mind. He'd been in a supermarket on day two. Mentally numb. Walking at a shuffle. Wondering how to form a smile of thanks when the cashier offered him his change. His doctor had reassured him that these side-effects would pass. He couldn't say how long they would take to fade, but surely they were better than the suicidal thoughts Ranald had experienced on the previous drugs?
Now, momentarily, he worried that a day or two off his pills might reintroduce that numb state of mind. Then he dismissed the thought. Things were looking up. His life was changing for the better. A little more cash. A new home.
Excerpted from "House of Spines"
Copyright © 2017 Michael J. Malone.
Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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