Stuart was the sixteenth reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

His appearance was on Sun 30th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.

Stuart’s first novel Influence was self-published on Amazon, with all proceeds going to the Nepalese charity Yak Nak projects which his friends started to help street children in Kathmandu. He is currently completing his second novel.

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

The Gospel According to John
a short story by Stuart Johnstone

Today’s sermon is titled: get ’em laughing, and you’ve won a watch!

    I don’t know if there will be a test at some point but John’s little homilies are accumulating and I can’t possibly be expected to remember them all; I barely know what half of them mean, but I’m afraid to ask and risk looking stupid .

    John is whistling, he’s always whistling, or drumming, or both. Music seeps from him constantly and I doubt he even notices; I barely do any more. His cheeks are round and ruddy as if he is blowing with massive effort, but this is just his face, it will be the same when the music stops. On the night shift he takes his chanter down to the gymnasium while the rest of us play cards in the canteen. The distant whining notes peal through the empty night-time halls of the police station like the ghostly lament of a fallen Jacobite

    He showed me a picture once of when he was at the police training college, somewhere I’ve just come back from, my second and, mercifully, final stint, and he looked exactly the same. He would have been twenty but with his round jolly face and unfortunate hairline he looked like a wee old man even then. He won the Baton of Honour and in the picture he’s proudly clutching it, the award presented to the outstanding new recruit in every intake. I hid my incredulity well, I hope, part of the criteria now for this award is excellence in physical training, and John was almost as round in the photograph as he is now, perhaps the criteria was different then.

    I am weeks from completing my probation period. Eighteen days to be precise; it waits in front of me, an invisible line like a nautical meridian which, when crossed, will impart status, respect and a sizeable pay increase.

    John is driving, he has to. I won’t get my driving course for another six months or so – can’t come quick enough – John says often, I tend to agree, he fell asleep at the wheel a few weeks ago and since then I can’t relax beside him. John was nervous I would say something to someone about it, he never said as much, but I know him well enough by now. Of course I didn’t, I wouldn’t. It’s frankly unnatural to be driving at four o’clock in the morning. We should have been firemen instead, sleeping between cat rescues, lucky buggers.

    It’s a strange atmosphere today, but when does Christmas Eve ever feel like any other day, even when you’re working. It has that last day of school feel, like we should be playing Kerplunk or Trivial Pursuits not heading to a call.

    John is working tomorrow, I however got the day off; they needed drivers. It doesn’t seem fair but John says he doesn’t mind, I guess he’s used to it.

    We’re pulling into the supermarket car park, it’s raining but it had been snowing earlier in the day and the white lines of the parking spaces have been delineated with slush. John ignores them anyway and pulls up directly outside the front door. I know by now this means someone is almost certainly getting the jail as he would put it. He’s made an assessment based on the information passed by control about this call.

    We have an instant audience. I’m getting used to being stared at, something I struggled with initially and hadn’t anticipated when I joined, but of course people are going to stare – it’s the police, something exciting is bound to happen. I find though I am a perpetual public disappointment, things rarely get exciting; something else I didn’t anticipate

    A member of staff has spotted us, one of the security chaps. He has a walky-talky and a look of embarrassment and relief. He shuffles to us and leans into John, so close I can’t hear what’s being said. I look around the place. It’s crazy busy, we get called here fairly often, but I’ve never seen it like this, it’s thick with bodies and fat trolleys. Some people are pretending not to look, pretending to linger for any other reason than to see the show, whilst others are just blatantly stopping and waiting for it to begin.

    ‘He’s locked himself into the security office, idiots left him alone in there,’ says John out of earshot of the staff member.

    ‘Who has?’

    ‘The shoplifter. He’s been smashing the place up for the past twenty minutes.’

    Just as John says that I hear him, a small door secreted into the back wall of the supermarket and there’s mayhem going on behind it. The staff are looking at us, waiting for the cavalry to charge, the shoppers stare on, anticipating. I’m looking at John. His hands are tucked into his body-armour, he’s letting me get on with it. I don’t have a clue, like most police work this one isn’t in the manual, if there was one.

    I put my face to the door and tell the occupant it’s the police and to stand back. He replies with a hefty boot that leaves my ear ringing and my temper steaming.

    ‘Get lost, pigs.’ comes his eloquent retort followed by the sound of a smashing bottle and the assertion that the first one through the door is getting carved open. Not only have they left him alone in the room but they also left him with the items he had intended to filch, including a six pack of bottled beer, now apparently converted to five plus weapon.

    I spend the best part of twenty minutes trying to assert our position, but achieve little more than working the bottle wielding incarcerated thief into one hell of a lather.

    The sweat collects on the back of my neck, this is not going well and the pantomime has gathered an ever increasing crowd of onlookers.

    This has gone on long enough, I decide, and snap open my baton and reach for the handle intending to ram my shoulder into it and face whatever fizzing snarling beast comes at me from within. The crowd stir with anticipation seeing my preparation, and as I step toward the door John places a discreet hand on my shoulder.

    ‘Here you,’ he says drawing me behind him, ‘If you don’t stand back from that door, I’m putting the dog in.’

    There’s a brief pause, the banging ceases.

    ‘You’ve no got a dug,’ our shoplifter says eventually, but without conviction.

    What happens next leaves me so embarrassed that I feel dizzy, physically nauseous like the legs could go out from under me.

    John is barking.

    It’s an awful impersonation, but it’s delivered with plenty of enthusiasm. There is a steady mix of incredulity and hilarity from the crowd. The laughter is boring a hole in my back.

    ‘Down Killer,’ John growls. ‘Good boy. Last chance neighbour,’ he warns through the door.

    The response comes oscillating with laughter.

    ‘What the hell kinda dug do you call that?’

    ‘Aye, well, he’s only a Jack-Russell,’ says John, ‘but he’s trained to go straight for the baws.’

    A full bellied laugh erupts from the staff, and from behind the door, I smile myself but I still yearn for the floor to open up and swallow me.

    ‘Listen neighbour, what’s your name?’ asks John, his tone becoming more serious.

    ‘Last name Lost, first name Get.’

    John approaches the door and lowers his voice creating as close to a private conversation as the circumstances will allow. I try to help by working my way between him and the staff who are just loving this.

    ‘Well Mr Lost, you know as well as I do that even if I wanted to I can’t leave here without you, that’s just the way it is and nothing anybody can do about it.

    ‘You’ve obviously realised that you’re going to be kept in over Christmas, and there’s nothing can be done about that either and if I was in your shoes I’d probably flip too, but I hope I’d also have the sense to realise when I’m beat; ’cause although you’re thinking it couldn’t get much worse, we both know deep down it could, and we’re just about at that point now.

    ‘The only thing I can do for you is promise that we’re only going to deal with the theft, whatever damage you’ve done in there we’ll just… ignore. If you step away from the door we’ll make this as easy as we can. You might not appreciate it now, but you will by the time you go in front of the Sheriff, I promise you that. Fair enough?’

    Another pause.

    ‘Aye, fair enough.’

    I’m expecting a bear of a man to emerge from the office, but it’s a skinny boy of nineteen who pulls the door open looking defeated.

 
 

    Things are just as surreal in the car.

    I sit in the back with the lad as John gives him a good talking to; his head hung low over his cuffed hands. He breaks into tears as he tells John he just needed to get his kids something for their Christmas, and John responds with a lecture on the proper way to provide for your family.

    Then, lecture ended, John starts with the Christmas carols, drumming the steering wheel in accompaniment. To my continued bewilderment the young lad joins him in a chorus of Deck the Halls, the lad’s voice still warbling with emotion through the fa-la-la-la-las.

    ‘Get ’em laughing, and you’ve won a watch,’ John preaches as he closes the cell door having handed the boy an extra blanket and a magazine.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I do catch myself saying this particular idiom of John’s now and again.

    I still don’t really know what it means.

(c) Stuart Johnstone, 2015