David Bowie, the Post Office and Me

David Bowie ruined my life. It’s true. David Bowie ruined my life. I appreciate that such a statement sounds excessively melodramatic, ludicrously far-fetched and, to David Bowie’s legal team, extremely libellous. But it’s true. David Bowie ruined my life. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t come stumbling into my house at 3am, whacked out of his head on marijuana and Bailey’s Irish Cream and in a blaze of perfectly delivered rhyming couplets hack my girlfriend to pieces. No! No!! No!!! He may have released a few dubious records and had brief flirtations with Nazis and glam rockers but that hardly makes him a sociopath worthy of national scorn and venom. I’m sure if you pop round his house for and gin & tonic and a couple of cucumber sandwiches he would prove to be a most genial host. But that doesn’t alter the fact that throughout the worst day of my life he was a constant and odious presence. It doesn’t alter the fact that he ruined my life. Of course, it could be said that my poorly conceived plan to rob the G-Wood post office ruined my life, however, as the old saying goes: why blame yourself when you can blame an internationally loved and respected rock star.

The day started the same way every weekday started: Lucy woke me with a soft kiss and a strong coffee, I said good morning, said goodbye, she did the same and left for work, I drank my coffee, got out of bed, urinated, stared in the mirror, showered, went downstairs and turned on the radio.

David Bowie greeted me with a song about shirts and spaceships. The song ended and the news came on. The same news the newsreader reads every day – war, death, famine, rape, death, pillage. The second last story was about armed robbery: Fife Constabulary had performed so admirably in the previous twelve months that armed robbery was at its lowest level for seven years, the Prime Minister had personally commended their efforts and declared that they should be held aloft as a beacon of hope for police forces the world over, blah blah blah, hurrah. And then the last story kicked in, the usual made-up jocular nonsense that always ends the news, something about skateboarding nuns, cricket playing cats, poker-playing dogs. But it’s the space between the final two news items that’s important, that’s the pivotal moment, that’s the watershed, that’s the exact moment I decided to commit a major crime.

I know the exact time – 8.07am, fact fans – that I decided to become an armed robber but I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it was the onset of the midlife crisis a decade or so early. Perhaps it was what non-alcoholics refer to as a moment of non-clarity. Perhaps it was a bout of temporary insanity. Perhaps it was an anti-epiphany. I don’t know. Lucy earned more than enough money for the two of us and she genuinely didn’t care that I my annual income was, in her words, not very impressive: I cooked the meals, washed the dishes, emptied the bin, scrubbed the toilet, did the dusting, the vacuuming, the laundry, changed the bed sheets – I was the perfect house husband. I didn’t need the money and I certainly had no desire for a criminal record. Until that day I’d never even committed a proper crime – I’d dabbled with drugs, I’d driven faster than the speed limit, and once as I staggered home from the pub I’d thrown a stone through the windscreen of every red car that I passed, but I was hardly a career criminal or a danger to society.

I finished my third cup of coffee, went upstairs, threw on some clothes, brushed my teeth and returned to the kitchen. David Bowie greeted me with a song that wasn’t about shirts and spaceships – two Bowie songs in less than half an hour, perhaps it was Bowie’s Birthday. I switched the radio off, put my sunglasses on and stepped onto the sun-kissed G-Rothes streets… onto the road to oblivion.

G-Rothes is a town without a heart. It’s a place to sleep when you’re not at work. Its inhabitants look dishevelled and dangerous or vacant and scared. It’s the beginning and the end of nothing. It’s Soviet Berlin gone wrong. It’s a cultural void – it has no cinema, no theatre, no art gallery, no bookstore. But it does have a bridge. The original plan was to create a vision of true beauty, a focal point, a world-renowned tourist attraction. G-Rothes’ very own Golden Gate was the phrase bandied about at council HQ. There was muted-talk of moving the North Sea eight miles inland thereby turning Kirkcaldy into a twentieth century Atlantis (minus the advanced culture), and G-Rothes into the San Francisco of Scotland. Unfortunately there were too many logistical problems and a few ethical ones. So the North Sea stayed where it was and G-Rothes never got its tramcars or beatnik heroes.

But it got its bridge – a very lacklustre bridge but a focal point none-the-less.

Hey, it makes no difference how crap your town is because as Judy Garland said, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

I entered the K-Centre at ten minutes to nine. Other than a few OAPs and skateboarders the place was devoid of life. As I approached Home Brew Records I noticed that there was a small crowd of people gathered outside. When I drew closer a large poster in the window revealed the reason: David Bowie’s new album was released that day and Home Brew were selling it for an ‘Unbeatable’ ten pounds, and the first few customers were going to be lucky enough to get a free limited edition poster. Claire occupied position number five in the queue.

I suppose I should briefly tell you who Claire is. Claire is the girl that I was living with before I met Lucy. We spent three years of our life together – three (mostly) very enjoyable years – but, unlike Lucy, Claire was never entirely happy that my average annual income was dangerously close to zero. Officially the end of the relationship had been a mutual decision and an amicable one; truthfully, she shattered my heart into a million tiny shards then swept them and me out the front door – I have no desire to elucidate.

It was obviously going to be a very bad day – a girl who’d broken my heart was fifth in line to buy the latest David Bowie album (I hoped that the poster was limited to only four copies). If I was a pragmatic man I would have went home and spent the rest of the day in bed. I nodded at Claire, she smiled back and I walked on.

I was heading to Scud Williams’ to borrow a get-a-way vehicle but Scud was heading towards me.

‘Morning, Marcus.’

‘Hey Scud, where you heading?’

‘To buy the new David Bowie album, it’s meant to be a classic, a genuine return to form.’

‘David Bowie! Classic! Return to form! They say that about all his albums but everyone is as crap as the last and almost as bad as the next. The man’s a pain in the ass, a musical menace, a waste of rations…’

‘Rant on, man! What the hell’s wrong with you? Did you get beaten with a Bowie record when you were a kid? Bowie’s a legend, a true 100 per cent legend.’

‘Christ! The entire world’s gone Bowie bonkers!’

‘You’re a heathen, Marcus, a total heathen. Anyway, where are you going?’

‘Your house.’

‘Well, as you can see, I’m not at home, but you’re more than welcome to head down there and have a cup of coffee and whatnot. Or, alternatively, you can come with me to Home Brew and buy the new David Bowie CD – it’s never too late to become a believer.’

‘Fuck you!’

I wandered down to Scud’s and let myself in. Scud never locks his door – nobody within a hundred miles of G-Rothes would be daft enough to steal from Scud.

I expected to hear Bowie emanating from the stereo but thankfully the house was silent. Unfortunately, Scud’s home was not free from Bowie themed horrors.

Lying on a vinyl copy of Bowie’s Young Americans, just waiting to be rolled and smoked, was a joint. I left it where it was. Partly because I rarely smoked pot and when I did it was usually only after 9pm, but primarily because I was beginning to grow suspicious and nervous of David Bowie’s rapidly increasing presence in my life.

I picked up a copy of Q magazine and opened it at a random page – it contained a review for Bowie’s latest album. Scud had circled the review and in the margin he’d scrawled ‘GOTTA GET IT!!!’ Things were growing increasingly surreal. Panic in G-Rothes!

Scud arrived home, an expectant smile on his face, a CD in one hand and a poster in the other. He walked over to the stereo and placed the CD into the drawer and pressed the play button. The drums started tapping, the bass started throbbing, the guitars started screeching, David Bowie started singing. Hoo-fucking-ray!

‘Do we have to listen to this nonsense?’ I was ignored.

‘I saw Claire at Home Brew, she was buying the new David Bowie album.’

‘Fantastic. Did she get one of the limited edition posters?’

‘Yup.’

‘Good, I’m glad.’

‘Yes, I’m sure you are. But only if it falls off her bedroom wall and gets lodged in her oesophagus and slowly chokes her to death.’ He was ignored.

‘Anyway, Marcus, what are you after? I assume that this is not merely a social call, I assume that you are on the scrounge for something.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘You’re always after something, that’s what makes me say that. If it wasn’t for the fact that you used to help me with my maths homework I would have had you run out of town years ago.’

We’d been close friends for the majority of high school but then our lives headed in different directions: me to university and onto a life a chronic underachievement; him to jail and onto a life of wealth and respect. But we were still friends – more-or-less.

‘Three cheers for calculus!’

‘Indeed. Seriously though, what are you after?’

‘Can I borrow one of your cars?’

‘What for? Actually, don’t answer that cos I’ll only be disappointed and disgusted by your boring and entirely legal shenanigans. Take whatever one you want, just make sure it comes back in one piece, with a full tank of petrol and without any dead bodies in the boot.’

The ‘dead body’ quip wasn’t entirely unjustified. A few years previously I had returned one of Scud’s cars with a dead body in the boot. I’d borrowed the car so I could go to the Animal Mega-Mart and buy a hamster for Claire’s birthday. As I was returning home I drove past one of my friends and being a decent guy I stopped to give him a lift. He was heading to the Poached Otter and asked if I fancied a pint or two – I did. So we dropped the car at Scud’s then headed onto the bar. Several pints and hours later I staggered home. Three days later Scud phoned…I’m sure you can guess the rest.

I drove home to gather the tools of the trade and have some coffee and breakfast. I walked into the kitchen, put a couple of croissants into the oven and flicked on the espresso machine. I was about to put on the radio but decided against it, then I went upstairs to collect the necessary equipment.

I was driving along SP Road before I realised that I was an item short. I drove back home, walked into the house and without thinking I switched the radio on. Someone who wasn’t David Bowie greeted me with a song that was about shirts but not spaceships. Perhaps my fortune was starting to take a turn for the better, but I figured I should play it safe and switched the radio off. After five minutes of searching the only bag that I could find was Lucy’s ancient dusty-pink vanity case that she now used as a storage space for her dirty clothes. Needs must. I tipped Lucy’s dirty laundry onto the dining room table and left. Seven minutes later I stepped through the door of the G-Wood post office.

I hate my mother: she taught me the necessity of good manners. Admittedly, good manners is a damn fine lesson to teach your son, it’s also a damn fine lesson for a son to remember and adhere to, but not when he’s about to commit armed robbery. But there I was, high noon on a glorious Monday in July, wearing a pair of gloves and a balaclava, holding an ancient dusty-pink vanity case in one hand and a hammer in the other, politely standing in a queue, waiting for my turn to be served. People began to stare; I began to examine my shoes.

I’d recently read a magazine article that said that you should never wear blue shoes because they cause depression and destroy self-confidence – perhaps not the best shoes to wear when you were about to audition for a starring role in Crimewatch. As I stood there in the post office queue staring at my shoes I realised what a load of crap the article was – my blue shoes had played a major role in some of the happiest and most unique moments of my life. I remembered first seeing them in a shoe shop in Kirkcaldy and instantly falling in love, and begging my mother to buy them for me, but being a traditional mother she insisted on buying ‘sensible shoes: a nice pair in black or brown’; I remembered that on my sixteenth birthday my mother had said, ‘Well, Marcus, today you’ve become a man and as such today is the last time that I will buy you a pair of shoes¼so let’s go get those blue ones you’ve always wanted’; I remembered the time in an Edinburgh bookstore that I had heard a little voice saying, ‘Daddy, that man’s wearing my shoes’, and then a little boy had walked up to me and placed his little foot beside my foot and then he gazed at me as if I was the most amazing and important man on the planet; I remembered waiting for a taxi on a cold and rainy November night, and this beautiful brunette came strolling through the fog and started talking to me, and we got in the same taxi, and we went to her home, and the next morning she told me that she started a conversation with me because only the very best people wear blue shoes, and for the next three years there was barely a day that we spent apart; I remembered that two nights ago Lucy had kissed me and told me that she loved me but wished that I wouldn’t wear ‘silly, little boy’s shoes’ then with a sparkle she added, ‘but you do look kinda cute in them’. As I stood there waiting to rob a post office I thought of my mother, and I thought of the little boy in the bookstore, and I thought of Claire, and I thought of Lucy, and I thought how disappointed they would be if they knew what I was about to do. I could feel my eyes getting wet. I was about to turn round and walk out when the cashier said ‘Next please’. My blue shoes stepped towards a new chapter in their immortal life.

‘Two first class stamps, please.’

‘That’s sixty pence, anything else?’

‘No thank you¼wait¼hold on¼yeah, there is¼this is a robbery! Fill this¼um¼bag with money!’

‘Sorry but I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that.’ She didn’t even look remotely concerned.

‘What do you mean you won’t be able to do that? Why not? Do as I say or there’ll be¼please, just do as I say, please fill the bag.’

‘I can’t fill the vanity case because it wont fit in the drawer; you won’t be able to pass it through. But if you take it down to the end you can pass it through the door, okay?’

‘Okay. But no funny stuff, I’ve got a hammer and I’m not afraid to use it.’ Pitifully I attempted to reinforce my words by holding the hammer aloft and waving it about. The cashier look embarrassed.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way, son, but is this one of those Candid Camera kind of things? It’s just that you don’t seem very professional and you seem to have lifted your words from some dodgy novel. This is a joke, isn’t it? Am I going to be on the telly?’ And there was my get-out clause, there was my ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, there was where I should have laughed and smiled and said ‘Yeah this is a joke. Yeah you’re going to be on telly – this Saturday evening at eight thirty on ITV.’

‘No this isn’t a joke. This is a robbery. And I am a professional.’ The cashier shook her head slowly, sadly, profoundly.

‘I’ve worked for the Post Office for forty years so you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this isn’t the first time I’ve been caught-up in an armed robbery. And when you’ve served the public for forty years you get to know a thing or two about people.

‘Criminals come in two basic varieties, sure there are lots of stopping off points between the two extremes but strictly speaking when you’re a criminal you’re one or the other.

‘You’re either the type who see no wrong in what they’re doing, it’s merely a job, a job that gives them a fair amount of satisfaction but a job nonetheless, they care nothing for the average human life and next to nothing for their own life, they’re mechanical and cold, and it’s only a foolish person who doesn’t cooperate with them.

‘Then there’s the other type, the ones who are mad and on the edge, the ones who aren’t bad people but circumstances have driven them to do foolish and criminal things, sometimes you can talk them down, sometimes not.

‘It’s all in the eyes, once you learn to read people’s eyes you’ve learned to read people’s minds. Humans are very predictable creatures; very easy to work out, once you know how, all you’ve got to do is look them in the eyes, look into their mind.

‘Now, on first impressions I would have said you were definitely one of the latter. But now I’m not so sure. You’re certainly not one of the first kind – there’s not a scrap of evil in your eyes. I’m not even sure that you fall anywhere between the two – I’d say you’re a unique breed, a new discovery, and a new variety of criminal.

‘Look, love, I’ll level with you. Why don’t you walk out of here and go home to your girlfriend – it’s obvious that you love each other very much, your eyes are positively aglow with love – and forget that this moment of madness ever existed…

‘Well? Would you still like me to fill your vanity case with money, or would you rather go home?’ And for the second time that day I could feel my eyes getting wet, for the second time in the space of a few minutes I was fighting back the tears. What an unbelievably weird day.

I was about to walk out and go home but, alas, someone had alternative plans: I felt a dull thud on the back of head and my balaclava was pulled off.

‘Smile for the camera, you bastard!’ The whack to the head must have made me brain go all mushy because I almost did. I turned my left (and arguably best) profile to the camera, cocked my eyebrow and was about to flash a smile so brilliant that any toothpaste manufacturer would have been proud to have me as their principle mouth model. There was a shriek that jolted me out of my toothpaste inspired reverie.

‘Oh my God! Marcus! What are you doing? Why are you robbing us? Does Lucy know what you’re doing?’

Here’s a handy tip for anybody planning on robbing a post office: don’t rob the post office that employs your next-door neighbour. There was nothing I could do except smile weakly.

‘Hello Maud.’

But I had no time to apologise or explain or exchange neighbourly niceties. My forehead was thrust against the glass security partition, the force of the blow creating a beautiful zigzag crack, which reminded me of the wallpaper I’d had on my bedroom wall when I was a ten-year-old kid. I was basking in the glory of being the kid with the coolest wallpaper in the entire school when I was picked up and thrown through the security partition.

‘What the fuck are doing? That really hurt!’

‘Fuck you! You’re the one that’s robbing the post office.’ The scumbag was wearing a David Bowie T-shirt (which, appropriately, featured a picture of Bowie with a large zigzag on his head) – he also had an extremely valid point.

‘I wasn’t robbing the post office. I was going to but then I changed my mind. But even if I was that doesn’t give you justification to throw me through a window.’

‘Fuck you!’ He threw my hammer at me. The head of the hammer hit me on my left shoulder and the handle caught me on the jaw. For the third time that day I had tears in my eyes.

I was in severe pain: my head hurt, my jaw hurt, my right knee hurt, my left shoulder hurt and I had a sizeable gash in my right arm. The room was spinning around, everything had gone all blurry, I felt a little nauseous and very confused and scared.

I clambered over the cash desk and, without looking at a single person, walked out of the post office. Nobody tried to stop me; nobody tried to speak to me.

Half way to the car and my condition had begun to stabilise, but it instantly plummeted into the critical zone when I realised that I didn’t have the hammer. Under normal circumstances I would have left it where it was but this was not normal circumstances: the hammer belonged to Lucy’s father, a man who already had a very low opinion of me, I didn’t want the loss of his hammer to further fuel his disdain, so I turned round and ran back to the post office.

‘Give me my hammer!’

‘What?’ Incredulous looks all round.

‘Give me my fucking hammer!’ Nobody moved, they just stood and stared, eyes agog, mouths agape.

‘Look, it’s not my hammer, it’s my girlfriend’s father’s, I really must return it to him, so, please, can I have the hammer?’ My next-door neighbour nodded and passed me the hammer.

‘Excuse me, but I think this is yours as well.’ One of the customers handed me my balaclava.

‘Thank you, goodbye…sorry.’

I sprint-hobbled to the car, unlocked the door, jumped in, started the engine, and drove fifty metres before the engine stopped. I was out of fuel. I grabbed the vanity case and the hammer, jumped out, locked the door, and sprint-hobbled into the T-Hall housing estate.

The situation was not good. I needed to find a hiding place, somewhere to lie low and formulate a plan, though considering what had happened at the post office a plan wasn’t going to be of any benefit. The sensible option would be to give myself up, but the day had hardly been a day of sense.

When I reached St. Ninian’s Church police cars could be heard but not seen – it was time to hide. I checked to make sure that nobody was looking and then fought my way into a clump of bushes. The police sirens drew closer, seemed to pause directly beside the bushes, then they slowly faded into the distance until the only sound was the 200bpm of my heart. Safe.

I was supine in the dirt, gazing at a possible Constable cloud study when for the first time that day I failed to fight back the tears, for the first time that day I wept.

I lay in those bushes for almost seven hours. For almost seven hours I was entirely alone – no kids playing hide and seek or toy soldiers, no cats and dogs looking for a quite place to rest or urinate, no policeman asking me to come out with my hands up.

Eventually I decided to make a move. I left the vanity case where it was but picked up the hammer and fought my way out of the bushes. The gash on my arm had stopped bleeding but it was a supreme mess and my jaw throbbed in a manner that suggested it was sporting an impressive bruise. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous – like a madman or a bum…or a criminal on the run.

The church hall was illuminated so I decided to sneak in and try and get myself smartened up a bit. Thankfully, the Boys Brigade crew were sublimely engrossed in their bibles. I washed my hands and face and gently dabbed my gashed arm, which scowled conspicuously. On my way out I grabbed a jacket from the cloakroom, hoping that by hiding my arm I would have an unhindered passage to my chosen safe house.

The journey to Scud’s was auspicious: Bowie didn’t sing; police sirens didn’t wail.

At Scud’s I acted as nonchalant as possible, and tried not to let the David Bowie songs that were coming from the stereo stress me out. When he asked about his car I said that I hadn’t returned it with a full tank of fuel. When he asked about the bruise on my jaw I told him that I had slipped on the kitchen floor. When he asked why I was wearing a jacket that was three sizes too small for me I merely shrugged.

I would have to tell Scud what had happened, I just had to find the right moment, the correct approach. Scud was a well-connected man, he would be able to get things sorted out…hopefully.

The phone rang. My heart stopped.

‘Hallo? Eh? What the fuck? Are you taking the piss? Hold on? Marcus, there is some guy on the phone called McEwan, he’s says the G-Wood post office was robbed earlier today and that they have traced the suspect to this address, do you have any idea what the fuck he’s going on about?’

‘No, haven’t a clue, sorry.’ Scud stared at me for a few seconds, he clearly doubted my words but he nodded slowly as he removed his hand from the telephone’s mouthpiece.

‘Hallo? Nah, sorry mate, think you must have the wrong number… ok, hold on… Marcus, it’s for you.’

‘Shit! Tell him I’m not here!’

‘Tell him you’re not here, have you totally fucking lost it? The head of Fife’s armed response unit is on the phone, which means my house is probably surrounded by twenty gun-totting fascists, and you want me to go back on the phone and say sorry mate but you’ve missed him, he’s just popped down the chip shop!’

‘Armed response unit! What the fuck! It was only a bloody post office! I didn’t even mean to rob it… well, I did, but then I changed my mind, and then I sort of accidentally robbed it…well, arguably I didn’t even rob it because I didn’t take any money…’

And then came the moment, one of those frozen moments when you manage to step outside your life a gaze back upon it with the eyes of a stranger, then came the moment I heard David Bowie sing ‘Five years, what a surprise…’ How perfectly apt I thought. And for the first time that day I smiled.

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~ by landells on January 1, 2012.

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