Denise Mina - The Red Road

Denise Mina. Picture: Contributed
Denise Mina. Picture: Contributed
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THE travails of Rose Wilson, a girl stuck in the care system and already being prostituted to older men by her boyfriend opens the latest gripping crime thriller from Denise Mina. Is there a way out for Rose?

• Welcome to the latest of The Scotsman’s new regular feature showcasing the talents of Scotland’s best writers. Every Saturday we will carry a great piece of writing from household names to up-and-comers, all reinforcing The Scotsman’s place as the home of Scotland’s best writing

Rose Wilson was 14 but looked 16. Sammy said it was a shame. She was alone in his car, in a dark city centre street of shuttered pubs and clubs. Outside, the soft summer breeze stirred the silt of a Saturday night, lifting paper wrappers, rolling empty cans. Rose watched a yellow burger box crab-scuttle from the mouth of a dark alley and tentatively make its way across the pavement to the curb.

She was waiting for Sammy to drive her back. It had been a long night. A sore night. Three parties in different flats. She used to think she was lucky she wasn’t freezing on the streets but she wasn’t sure tonight. He was off arranging next week. Lots of dough, he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Rose leaned her head on the window. Sammy was full of shit, they weren’t making a lot of money. She shut her eyes. They weren’t even doing it for the money. He was doing it to make other men like him, so he had something they wanted. She was making them pay for what they were taking anyway. But they went through this pretence, like it was a big money maker, her being underage. He said the money was lower than he promised because she did look 16, but never mind, eh? She still had a good long time to make her money.

The men weren’t interested in her age. They weren’t perverts, willing to pay big money to break the law. Rose knew all too well that those men just befriended some daft junkie cow with six weans and took it for free. The men Sammy fed her to were just normal men. They liked that she was young because they knew no-one would believe her. Nothing easier than making a wean shut up.

But Sammy needed to lie to himself, pretending he was a businessman or something. He’d save the money, he said, and they’d live together when she was legal. It was about the money and he loved her, they loved each other. Whenever he said that looked deep into her eyes, like a stage hypnotist she once saw at the Pavilion.

Rose never went out. She hardly even went to school. She couldn’t leave her mum alone with the young kids because she was always nodding out and dropping lit cigarettes, letting people into the house. But that time it was because she didn’t want to let Ida down. Ida T was their neighbour back in the flats, when her mum was alive.

Ida was decent. She knew there were problems, more than normal. Mistaking Rose’s mum for herself, but with loads of kids, Ida thought she’d feel better if she got more fun out of life, had a laugh. She bought two tickets for the late-night hypnotism show. By the time Ida came to the door Rose’s mum was asleep and looked like staying that way, so Rose pulled her coat on and Rose went instead.

When the lights went down and the show started the hypnotist got everyone in the audience to press both hands together as if they were praying, and then told them that their hands were stuck.

In the dark theatre Rose’s tiny hands came apart easily. So did Ida’s. They both thought the trick hadn’t worked until people began to stand up, lifting prayerful hands, laughing, baffled. They kept their hands together as they clambered over knees and bags, making their way to the aisle and they assembled on the stage, prayer-stuck, beseeching the Almighty for a bit of naughty fun.

The hypnotist gave them orders, stupid things to do and the audience laughed at them. Some of the people on stage, having sex with chairs, taking their tops off, snogging invisible movie stars, some of them weren’t hypnotised. Rose could tell. They were pretending, so they could get up on stage and act stupid and get attention or something. It was a lie they all agreed to tell each other.

When Sammy looked deep into her eyes and said they were doing it for the money she pretended like she was hypnotised. Love you too. But Rose’s hands came apart in the dark. She was waiting until she could get away from him, until she could find someone else, someone that she didn’t need to lie to. You did need somebody to cling to, she knew that.

She looked out at the street of pubs and clubs, where pals and cousins and sisters and workmates had met and spent the evening together. Her brothers and sisters had been scattered all over, adopted into different families down in England. It wasn’t even that long ago but she couldn’t remember all of their faces properly. She didn’t miss the responsibility, the weight of them all. She watched them leave, relieved. They wouldn’t miss her, she was sure. Where ever they went would be better than where they’d been. They might do all right, in a new place. She let them go. Rose was twelve and a half, too old for adoption, she knew that. People wanted to adopt fresh kids, and she wasn’t that.

Everyone else had someone. They weren’t even grateful. Mostly they complained about who they had. Rose hated kids at school whining about their folks. Moaning because someone demanded to know where they’d been all night, angry if they came home covered in bruises, smelling of sick.

Feeling sorry for herself, she felt that familiar plummet in mood. She couldn’t control the drop or slow it because she was so tired, it was morning, she was heading back for a fight with the care home staff because she had been out all night.

She ran through the night staff rota in her head: that new woman was on, the tall one, so Rose wouldn’t even be able to fall back on the old trick to get out of a grilling: she couldn’t pull her clothes off and force the male member of staff to leave the room. The staff were always calm, she hated that. They never raised their voices or got excited or screamed because they loved you. Sammy screamed and shouted. Sammy’s mood rose and fell, swooped and dived from extreme to extreme. That’s what first made her notice him. He stopped her on her way to school and said she was beautiful and she got embarrassed and told him to f*** off.

The next day he was there, waiting to see her, but now he was angry and told her she was full of herself, wake up, hen, you’ve got an arse the size of Partick. Then the next day he was sorry, he looked sorry too. He just wanted to talk. He felt this connection. Rose had kept her eyes down since her mother died. The first time she looked up it was for Sammy’s bullshit. wHer mood was shifting, swooping low, low, low, below angry. Random memories that echoed her mood came to mind: taking her pants off in a hallway stacked with bin bags, a grubby avocado-coloured bath with yellow fag burns, four men looking up at her from a living room.

She’d never admit it to her psychologist, but she did use some of his techniques: she shut her eyes, breathed deeply and summoned Pinkie Brown.

Pinkie holding her hand, his big hand over her small hand. Pinkie stirring a pot of food. Pinkie in their clean, wee flat. Pinkie holding a baby, their baby, maybe.

It worked. The breathing and the images shifted the tar-black mood. The psychologist said you could only hold one thought in your head at a time and she could choose that thought. It wasn’t easy, he said, but she could chose.

Pinkie sitting on a settee watching a football match on telly, wearing joggers and no top. Pinkie’s hand brushing his buzz cut hair.

The truth was that she didn’t really know Pinkie Brown. She’d spotted him a couple of times when they fought with Cleveden, the other kids’ home nearby. She saw him standing at the back, a head taller than everyone else. He was different. He was in charge. She noticed him cup the elbow of a crying child, his wee brother, Michael, as it turned out. He’d be good with kids, she knew he would. He caught her eye twice, once in the street, once outside school. A girl at school said Pinkie had asked about Rose.

Pinkie Brown got stuck in her head and she made up stories about him: Pinkie was her childhood sweetheart. Sure, they both grew up in care, but they understood family, like those wee girls in the home with bad teeth: their mum walked all the way across the city to visit so she could spend her bus fare on sweeties for them.

In Rose’s story she and Pinkie grew up together. They stayed true to each other. When they were old enough they got a wee clean house, had a baby. They wore matching rings from Argos. He never cared what she’d done in her early life either. He understood and she made good money. Maybe she’d stop it when she got older and could. Maybe she’d go to college and become a social worker, not like her social worker but a really good one, one who actually knew what went on, and stop stuff happening to kids like her.

Better. A warm lift took the black edge off her mood. She felt the mood subside. Getting dozy, she sat up and bit her cheek to keep herself awake. She had to be on guard because when she got in the staff would take her in the office and quiz her about where she had been all night. She must not say anything about Sammy or the parties or the men. They’d kill her.

They never threatened her but she heard them talk. Easiest thing in the world, getting rid of a girl no-one was looking for. And the staff: she didn’t want them to know about this other world. The kids all said they hated the staff but there was something sweet about some of them, hoping they could help. She didn’t want to spoil that.

So, she opened her burning eyes and sat up and found herself looking straight at Pinkie Brown.

Pinkie Brown stepped out of a dark alley, sidewall to ChipsPakoraKebab. He was looking straight back at her. Her pulse throbbed in her throat. He had come, as if her yearning had conjured him from the filthy dark.

• Denise Mina is the author of 11 novels, four graphic novels, three plays and many short stories. This extract is the opening section of her latest novel, The Red Road. Scotsman readers can order copies for the special price of £10.99 (rrp £12.99) by calling 01903 828503 and quoting ref no: PB088. UK postage & packing free, overseas add £1.60.