“Albert Eugene Babendreier. Maryland. Can’t be many of those.”
“What a name. Why? D’you know him?”
My partner didn’t bother to look at the international news story which had caused me to stop scrolling. I read further in silence. We were sitting in the kitchen, as we had a habit of doing on darkened evenings when the farm was lapped in unending drizzle.
“We were penpals.” I replied eventually.
If you’d asked me to recall Al Babendreier’s address after all these years, I’d have said something generic like ‘Lakeview’, with a high house number. ‘1144 Lakeview’. Somesuch. ‘MD’. The road mentioned in the news feed, where the Babendreier home is pictured, and where his crimes took place over many years, was unrecognisable to me.
“It’s got to be him. Same age as me.”
“What’s he doing?” My partner assumed I’d been passing through social media.
“Time. A lot of it.” I put the tablet to the table and stood to refill the kettle once more. I was unable to see our fields through the domestic reflection. Even at 7pm the tones were heavier than they were last week. A world dipping further into ink. Winters on Arran can be unforgiving.
“Just the next time you’re up there.” I was due to call Glasgow anyway and I made a short one the following morning. “Any papers and schoolbooks are in the same box. They’re tucked down the side, I think. Elastic band. One’s got Snoopy or Charlie Brown on the front. Aye. American stamps. Just the next time you’re up.”
Knowing my father, he’d want to get his chore completed. Sourcing the Babendreier papers would become a small sense of purpose in his retirement and he’d be on the retractable stairs to the attic that afternoon. I asked him to post them to Arran.
With three dogs and a quad bike, I successfully moved the blackheaded ewes from the lower hillside and back to paddock A. That took the best part of the afternoon, and I was then a position to begin sorting for Stirling market. Who to keep for next year’s breeding, who seemed weak or fallow, who would enter the food chain.
“Trust you to take a step backward.” My dad was unwilling to follow in granda’s footsteps. A committed townie, he never understood my decision to return to an Arran farm I had only seen on summer holidays. After years of unbridled tedium in Paisley, as an admin officer in the Civil Service, I began to dream of dramatic plains reaching up to the standing stones and Goatfell, already frosting along its ridge. Heather swallowed by mist, appearing suddenly and as if from nowhere. Giant, muscular rolls. Nights filled with tied gates rattling. Cold, silenced machinery. Heading out with buckets, into a new day, slopping like answered prayer after an Ice Age.
“Says here he..” I was lying in bed, starting to speak but stopping. Further reports on the Babendreier case. Inside headphones, engrossed by some guided meditation, my partner could not hear me anyway. Affirmation, astral plane.
It’s just the two of us here, and an annual bill for contract shearers, rookie Poles in wrong boots, mainland scanners who dose the girls, a rosy accountant dancing up the drive with a recommendation for some American app or other. Get your stillborns down. Stop abortions. Vaccination programming. Vet your vet. Feedback for your feed guys. How and when to close your flock. End your dependency on replacement ewes. Watered down? Knock 10% off fecundity. Make every lamb pay for his mom. Two’s profit.
The late season brought us a dozen twins, several triplets and our first quad. Rams go straight to market. At the end of the day, nobody’s a millionaire.
I tapped to enlarge the latest images of Albert Eugene Babendreier which have been surfacing. A meaty, shaven man with a goatee. Then, suddenly, a small, square face. Bobbed, blond hair in an historic photograph. A face I could never have envisaged, all those years ago.
Morning auction, and the tail stretched back about twenty vehicles. A dozen store lambs rotated behind me. We had decided to let someone else finish these ones in a shed. Fluke them and shear them. Too many ready at once proves a problem, as it did in January. Hoppers risk overfeeding, we discovered.
I was alone at the wheel with the engine cut, reading a longer piece. Embedded local news footage, intercut by police. I became so engrossed that I didn’t hear the queue when it began to chug and push forward. The morning had been bright. I was wearing sunglasses.
“Babendreier’s every breath was a lie. He could buy you and sell you. He left a body almost every place he went. Men, women, children. He saw no difference. Attempted rape, strangle and take your identity. Send a wife flowers under her dead husband’s name. I saw a man stabbed so many times he bled through the mattress. Damn floor was soaked. At one point, Babendreier was eight people, but he was impotent. The young guests in the Babendreier cellar, however, filed in one by one. Between 1999 and 2002 the makeshift, self-contained unit became the final home for Jojoe Bosquez. An eight-year old last seen leaving Sunday school in Silver Spring, Washington DC.”
“Alan, man. I cannae take this. Lying here knowing you’re no sleepin’. You’re on that bike like a zombie. I’m a fucken bear. An’ you’re. fucken zombie in a ditch. We have to be up, man. Four hour.”
I was lying in the darkest darkness, unable to respond to my partner. The problem might have been tiredness but tiredness rises internally and eventually tends to make one sleepy. This felt different. A tiredness coming through time and space. Suddenly there is nothing to say. I opened my mouth to say that. But the need fell away, and I did not.
I passed through the door, pulling a spare, undressed duvet behind me and I rolled inside it on the office couch. That is all I can do.
“Babendreier was responsible for five or seven homicides during the Jojoe Bosquez period. Out of his suspected forty-two. Eight including the child, who was swiftly replaced with another eight-year old, Maryam Luna.”
“What can you tell us about the cellar on Burnt Store Road?”
“By all accounts it was shrine to Babendreier’s own childhood. His toys and games were kept there. It had a bathroom with flooding problems. I’m told by those who knew him that it was decorated exactly like the upstairs room. Even going so far as using end-of-stock wallpaper.”
Dear Pen Pal, My name is Albert. I am nine years old. I am in third grade at Dunkirk Elementary. I live near Hughesville, MD. My favourite sport is dodge ball. I miss swimming. My cursive is improving all the time. Please excuse the Snoopy stationery. It was my sister’s. I look forward to knowing you. Your pen pal, Albert
Burnt Store Road. Okay. I blew hard while the kettle boiled, and I carried a pot of coffee to the office, an old elastic band around my wrist, and I carefully squared the letters into a pile at the top of the desk.
Dear Alan, I used to go swimming but I hurt myself. My dad is an engineer but not the kind that drives trains. My mom is no longer living. Here with us. I am partly Scottish but mostly Dutch and German. I have one of each. Both are with mom. I looked you up in the atlas. You must eat a lot of fish there. Have you seen Transformers the Movie? It is great but the language is tough. You have been warned. I bought my own stationery. I hope you like it. Write me soon. Your (p)Al. P.S. you are also (p)Al. I wish I was Wildblood.
Dear (p)Al, Wildblood is just a name. It could be Firedriver or Dragonfodder. I never so called you an eskimo. Have you had Space Dust? I will put a pack inside for your igloo. This weekend I went to Washington to see. We saw the Lincoln Memorial and the White House on a golf cart. I lost my way in the Natural History Museum and Steven told mom I was a runaway. It’s full of bones, like fish but bigger. Where I live is close by a lake. Some days Dad and me go fishing with his buddies. There aren’t so many kids around. I like the chickadees. You ask a lot of questions. There are no scarecrows but I can see a sprayer machine. What’s outside your window? Your (p)Al
Dear (p)Al, Today on Kids Incorporated a runaway boy wanted to be a detective in Scotland Yard. Martika sang we can’t always get what we want. Nobody eats chickadees. Now I call one Alan. He used to be Crystalranger. Steven has a Sega but I never used it. The best Dunkirk day is any day they don’t ask me questions. Also the substitute picks on me unduly. I fall asleep at times. Worst day was my tooth coming loose and blood running on my books. Peter Umberhocker reported me and said I do this sort of thing on purpose. Once he sees a kid whipped he picks on them more. The teacher (worst substitute) believed him. My brother is called Steven. I don’t remember what I’ve told you. Here are yours, Sherlock. When is a boat a ship? What do Scottish detectives eat? You been in a war boy? You been a tunnel rat? Two questions from dad’s buddy Cyrus. Your (p)Al
Dear (p)Al, Dad’s Buddy Cyrus here. I’m writing this time and I don’t believe ya. Ya got it wrong. There an’t no grenades in a water cage boy. Tramp get me a beer. I seen underground. Ya got it all wrong. This flies a straight line. Now this is Albert. I thought your war story was great. Write me more. Alan Chickadee is also great. He’s a blackcap and likes to do his own thing. This is a story of Alan Chickadee. At nights he sat on the old water tower looking at the moon. And every night he heard the wolfs. Alan thought he was a wolf or some ways had a spirit animal inside called Wolf Cody. He tried to howl but ithat never happened. Come closer or go away, he thought to the moon. It’s the distance I don’t care for. And that is why wolfs howl. Dumbass tale. So next week is my birthday. Last year we were done decorating and went into Hughesville for wings. The biggest cheeseburger they had. The choice was mine. The waitress had to drive us home. Ships can carry a boat. I never saw the other way round either. Cyrus likes your answer. He says you should join the Feds. Your (p)Al
Hey it’s me Al, Maybe you’re away. I heard there was a hurricane maybe it brought down a plane Maybe it brought down a knocked over postal train. I’m back in the big city soon. I missed a question. Maybe a kind of a entertainer. I had a great birthday. When is yours? Your (p)Al
Hey (p)Al, The almonds came loose but it arrived in one piece. Thank your mom. Is she from Dundee? It was real heavy. We took it on a fishing trip. Gary said there was scotch in it. He near fell over. Cyrus said roll it up and smoke it. We found teabags and we had teatime at the lake. I’m not sure about holding the cups. Something with the pinkie. Summer on an island sounds like an adventure. Hardy Boys and treasure. I hope yall found it. It’s OK. I was busy too. Busy living like folks say. Your (p)Al