Davy Gray — Tribute to an Unsung Hero

I am very sad. My best friend and my protector, guardian and guide when I was in the Police, the person who was often most effective at calming the rage that sometimes overwhelms me, a font of wry humor, has died. I will no longer hear that generic growl down the phone that might mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or indeed anything really. No more than five years older than me, Davy Gray passed away this week when cancer finally claimed him, leaving behind a wife, two teenage daughters and a crazy dog. I write as much for them as for him. I want them to know how much Davy meant to me, and how proud I was to have known him and to have served with him. As I said to Davy shortly before he passed away “I’ve got them Davy. I spent enough long night shifts with you to know the things you worry about. Don’t. I’ve got them.”

So Trish, this is for him and it’s for you. It’s also to explain to anyone who cares to listen that you don’t need to do great things in the public eye to be great. You just need to quietly get on with doing the best you can for your community, for society and for your family. Everyone should do a public service and it doesn’t really matter what: Soldier, Doctor, Teacher, Street Sweeper, Hospital Porter…or, as was the case with Davy, the Police. Those who do are the unsung heroes who quietly serve without expectation of high praise. They are the ones whose eyes have been opened to the way society really operates. They are the unsung heroes. Davy was an unsung hero. Except now I’m going to sing his song…

I joined the Police in 1994, which was where I first met Davy. Let me give you some context. I had a degree and a PhD and was starting a career where graduates were seen as…well let’s just say they were seen as less than competent; lacking common sense; in other words they were seen as f***ing useless. Worse, I was an ENGLISH student joining a SCOTTISH Police Force in an environment where a local radio station declared itself as the ‘Official anti-English Radio Station’. So I was seen as a much-despised, soft southern student nonce with no common sense.

My introduction to my new team came one morning at 0630hrs when I paraded, all pressed uniform, shiny boots, new notebook and nerves, to the station briefing room to find it almost completely dark with early morning cigarette smoke. No one introduced me, no one welcomed me, nobody even looked up. I stood there for a few seconds and tried to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do and eventually went to sit in the only available seat in the room. This happened to be next to a bear of a man (not Davy) who was slowly writing something in his notebook. Still silence. Eventually he finished his writing, closed his notebook, and without even looking my way, quietly said, “So what’s your f***ing degree”. And that was it, that was pretty much all I heard all day, except a stern admonition from my tutor constable to “say nothing and do nothing without permission”. This was the tone for the next six months at least.

As it happened, my first day was eventful in that I was involved in arresting an aggressive wino who, some years later, was found murdered. The notes I took that day apparently proved invaluable in linking him to a suspect, but that’s by the by. I also attended an unexpected death that DID end up with a murder enquiry. So my first day was one of abuse that I will charitably class as good-natured, my first dead body, and the disgusting job of searching a pissy, stinking tramp. The point here is to let you know that the job was tough and scary, and made worse by the despite in which I was held.

A quick note on nicknames. Everyone had a nickname. It was a right of passage when I was in the Police to be given a nickname, and these matured as you did. For example, the first of my colleagues above to speak to me was called ‘BIFFO’. One school of thought was that he was called this because he looked a bit like Biffo the Bear which was, in many ways, accurate. Another school of thought was that BIFFO stood for Big Ignorant Fat F***ing Oaf. Other names on my shift included Beaker, Bungy, Psycho, Thrush (just don’t ask), Signal, Muscles (ironic), Horses, Crocker, Hoddit and his mate Doddit (also known as Donk or Pockets), and so on. My first nickname was ‘FEC’, which stood for ‘F***ing English C**t’, but this migrated to ‘The Three Degrees’ (because I had two) and finally, courtesy of Davy, to ‘Vinny’. “Why Vinny?”, I asked, to which he replied “How many short-haired English thugs do you know?”. I was actually quite proud when I was given this name because it was Davy who had coined it and it meant that my strategy had worked. You see, early on I’d figured out that I was considered soft and lacking in common sense and determined to do my best to destroy this image. This meant that I forced myself into everything; I learned as fast as I could and sucked knowledge up (I was a professional student after all). It also meant that I made sure to be the first at every incident, I would sprint like an addict to a first-come-first-served methadone happy hour to be the first at a fight or riot or some violent incident, and when I was there I hit hardest and was the last to stop. So I developed a certain reputation that stood in me good stead. To be fair though, when I started in the Police I really was clueless and there will be those who read this who will nod, probably puff on a pipe and go “yep, you really were useless.”

My 30th birthday party. Tombstone, Donk and Psycho in shot. He looks like a Psycho doesn’t he?

And so to Davy. he was anything but useless. I have never met a more curious, intelligent, humane and warm individual. One of his nicknames was ‘The Oracle’ because he was the procedural guru to whom everyone turned in their time of need. If he was in the operations room on Command and Control duty he would receive private phonecalls on his mobile from officers who were stymied by something they were handling and needed advice. He always knew what to do. He also had an almost prescient awareness for danger. You would be allocated a job to attend by someone else and would arrive at something ostensibly routine to find that other colleagues had also turned up. If Davy’s senses were tingling he would allocate backup for you long before the lunatic had plunged the sword through the letterbox as you stood there, knocking at the door, or the screaming banshee had landed on your back after leaping out of a cupboard. Or, on one occasion, long before my senior colleague had refused to enter the flat to play the game of ‘hunt the escaped tarantulas’.

So Davy was called ‘Oracle’, but that was not his main nickname. His proper nickname was ‘Tombstone’. Not just because he was big (just the biggest man I have ever met) and grey (his hair was white) but also because, as one colleague put it, “if you mess with him, it’s your funeral”. Having said that, there were only two occasions in all the time I knew him that I saw him use even the smallest amount of force. Usually his mere presence at an incident was enough to calm the most psychotic individual down. Stepping through the pub door and, in so doing, completely blocking out the light was enough to abruptly stop an ongoing brawl. Usually this meant that I, as first at the brawl, was then offered the opportunity to pick myself off the floor and deliver some well-placed justice to the person who had recently been jumping up and down on my head. I was always grateful when he showed up.

As to the two occasions, well one is central to the story of the 6ft wall I mention below. The other involved him threatening justice to someone who had bitten me and then kicked him in the head. Suffice it to say that when a 22-stone man holds a fist the size of a ham in front of your nose and asks “Do you understand?” you answer “Yes”. In fact I also said “Yes” even though the question was, I think, not directed at me. Years later I asked Davy what he’d meant by “Do you understand?” and his answer was typical. “Doesn’t really matter what I meant, he got the point”.

You see, Davy selected me as a friend, and not I him. I wouldn’t have dared to presume. I have no idea what he saw in me because I was a useless English student, but select me he did. Maybe it was his curiosity or maybe it was his kindness; I was, after all, an ostracized curate’s egg and nobody could understand why I, with a PhD and an obvious deathwish, would want to be in the Scottish Police. But he sought me out to be his beat partner, co-pilot and general conversationalist at every occasion. And he always had so many questions. Davy had never been to University, which was a great loss to academia as he was a natural scientist, but that didn’t stop him asking me the most academic of questions. What’s more, any discussion he started and upon which I would then opine would continue over the following few days and become very technical because Davy would go home and research the subject to understand it better.

So our friendship progressed. We would discuss the bizarre and the trivial, Davy would advise me on procedure and also on how to handle and get on with the most truculent and dinosaur-like of my colleagues, and we would share our love of food. Specifically, curry. And here is where things really took off. We ended up having cook-offs, and he went to great lengths to buy and crush or grind the raw spices and bring the results of his cooking in for us to share in the small hours on nightshift. I would return the favor. Others would try the results and would agree on two things — Davy was by far the better cook (he was truly awesome) and “Sh*t, that’s hot”. I once saw Davy as a joke eat a couple of habanero chillis whole as if they were nothing. Sure, Trish shouted at him when he promptly threw up, but it was totally worth it. I think.

When we weren’t cooking for each other we were getting our kebabs or curries from what Davy told me was both the original and best kebab shop in Scotland, Kebab Mahal, owned and run by Mr Kahn. I came to love this place. Countertop service, home made food to take away or, if you were feeling expansive, to eat siting at one of the three plastic tables on suspiciously flexing plastic chairs (particularly when Davy was in situ). OMG the food is just the best. The service is basic, but at least the staff always knew our names. Kebab Mahal became our default setting when we were hungry on nightshift and our default years later whenever I went to Edinburgh on business. Indeed it was only a few months ago that Davy and I were last there.

We always had the same things too and I will continue to order these even though Davy won’t be there to share them: large mixed pakora, lamb madras, chicken achari, plain naan and pilau rice. I’m going to look pretty stupid though, ordering far too much food alone and then eating none of it as I alternately weep and laugh at the memories it will conjure.

Large mixed pakora, lamb madras, chicken achari, plain naan, pilau rice

I even had the chance to mention Davy and our favorite restaurant in a puff piece written about me some years after I left the Police. Here’s the link if you want to see it (http://www.dasinvestment.com/portraet-der-bulle-aus-der-city/), but the relevant paragraph is the opening one and here it is. Ok, so it’s in German:

“„Tombstone“ ist ein Hüne, über 2 Meter groß und massiv, Muskeln pur, graue, kurze Haare. „Um nichts in der Welt möchtest du Ärger mit ihm haben“, sagt Christopher Sier. „Tombstone“ heißt Grabstein, und jedes Mal, wenn Sier in Edinburgh ist, gehen die beiden zum Inder ins Kebab Mahal. Dort ist alles aus Plastik, die Teller, die Tische, die Stühle, die Deko, und das Curry gilt als das beste in ganz Schottland.” Das Investment, 2009.

‘Tombstone’ and ‘Kebab Mahal’ in the same piece! Love it. Naturally Davy found it (in truth I had forgotten I’d given the interview) and I received an email titled ‘WTF!’ but with the addition of “Call me!”. So I did, and he told me a story. You see, it turned out that a coachload of German pensioners on a charabanc to Edinburgh, all in possession of that particular edition of Das Investment, had been asked by their tour guide where they would like to eat. Their unanimous reply was “Kebab Mahal!”. So the coach they were in duly turned into Nicolson Square in Edinburgh and fifty or so tourists disgorged and crowded into Kebab Mahal for an early dinner. The first problem with this was that a confused Mr Kahn had to find an additional 30 seats in his restaurant, which seated only 20 or so. Mr Kahn is an enterprising individual and, as it was summer, he quickly asked neighboring shops if he could borrow tables and chairs and sat everyone on the pavement outside. He turned his counter-service kebab shop into a sort of street bistro in no time and managed to serve everyone.

The second problem was that Nicolson Square is tiny, and the turning circle of the enormous German bus was such that it became well and truly stuck. So the tourists not only got a great curry, but also were able to watch the ensuing debacle. As well as being small, Nicolson Square is an essential rat-run during rush hour for cars travelling out of Edinburgh. It acts as a major conduit between two main arteries out of Edinburgh, yet now it was blocked. It didn’t take long for the Police to become involved and those watching were treated to the sight of a scared German bus driver being shouted at by the Police, who were being shouted at by trapped motorists, all to the amusement of the unhelpful wino community who were resident to the small patch of grass that is the actual ‘Square’.

The point in Davy’s “Call me!” was that the incident was serious enough to merit a mention on the Command and Control system (input by Davy himself) and up until the point that he found the article, nobody could understand why the bus had turned into Nicolson Square in the first place. As Davy put it “Nyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh. You caused f***ing chaos when you were in the job, and you continue to cause it nine years later. The incident made the briefing folder. I’m going to update it with your name”. Few things have made me more happy.

As our friendship progressed so Davy slowly welcomed me into his world. I met his lovely wife Trish, and their monstrous cat. I forget it’s name, but it was an enormous black tomcat, scarred, torn-eared and unforgiving of strangers. Terror of the neighborhood, foe of other cats, dogs, people, cars, you name it, this cat became a kitten around Davy. For those of you who are Discworld fans, think Greebo and Nanny Ogg. The first time I met it, it gave me a look that said ‘Ah, lunch’ but much to my amazement Davy simply picked it up, spun it like a helicopter and threw it up in the air. Rather than landing on Davy’s head and clawing his eyes out, the thing started to purr like a buzzsaw and asked for more. It was a panther, but around Davy was very much a pathetic, needy kitten.

In the fullness of time the cat passed away and Davy waited for several years to get another pet. Initially he claimed that the puppy he bought a few years ago was for his daughters, but I can tell you the truth. It was really for him. The family opted for a Cockerpoo; they have a nice temperament, are hypoallergenic and don’t shed, they are smart and easy to train (the dog that is, not the family); basically they are almost perfect but for one little detail, little being the operative word. Please imagine the sight of a 2m, 22 stone man walking what was essentially a poodle puppy through the Edinburgh Meadows accompanied by an idiot (me) who was alternating between hysterical laughter and camping it up. In both cases I stayed well out of reach.

Of course, Davy started with the best of intentions, never having owned a dog before. The dog had a pen in which it was shut all night. It wasn’t allowed on the sofa or upstairs. It wasn’t allowed to beg. But I’m sure you all know how this ended up. It didn’t take Cassie (also known a Mutley) long to sort things out and now this dog OWNS the house. Sadly, she also worships Davy and I imagine she misses him as much as the rest of the family. She will be a source of tremendous comfort to them.

There are lots of stories I have about Davy and too many to describe here. All are amusing and interesting though:

Davy and the 6ft wall, or The day my own colleagues kicked the cr*p out of me because of Wayne Rooney.

Davy and the Whisky Trip or How Davy consumed a crate of Newkie Brown and horrified everyone at breakfast.

Davy and the incident with the ash tray in the Maltings or How Davy broke me and redecorated a bar in two easy steps.

Davy and my Wedding or How Davy came to Estonia and impressed everyone by wearing a kilt and drinking an entire cask of ale.

Davy and the trip to the Estonian Countryside or How Davy and his family visited me in Estonia and we all had a bloody good time.

Davy and the septic safety pin or How punk wasn’t really dead after all.

Davy and the “wee old man in a dress” or…well this is pretty self-explanatory really.

Davy and the ‘Lairig-bloody-Ghru’ or How Davy set fire to a picnic table, how he nearly throttled Willie Grant, how Peter Clarke ruined a brand new tent and was attacked by his own dog and we nearly died laughing at the chaos.

Davy and the Collective Noun for Chief Inspectors or How I ignored Davy’s advice and he ceased to function for a morning.

Davy? No. An Estonian boar. Or possibly one of our former colleagues, probably Dunny
Having a bloody good time in Estonia

The list goes on and on, and the years passed and passed. And Davy, who took an active interest in what I was doing, would drop me the occasional text or email with the title ‘WTF”, and the link pasted into the body. Usually this was in response to some public announcement or article in which I had been involved (such as the one above), but the point was he kept me grounded. He couldn’t take my rubbish too seriously, so why the hell should I? I was like that enormous cat of his. Strutting about the place, thinking I was king of the hill, but brought back down to earth as soon as I was in his company. Admittedly, he didn’t pick me up and spin me around like a helicopter (I’m sure he could have if he’d wanted to), but he had the same effect, metaphorically speaking.

Actually, and heartbreakingly, there was one time that he did let me know that he took me seriously, and that was about a week ago. He was awake from his emergency surgery and I offered to come up and spend some time with him and his family, just to hang out and see if I could help with ‘stuff’. He told me “Don’t be silly. I know your work is important and it’s a crucial time. This is just another thing. You keep going”. I listened to him. I wish I hadn’t. So at the same time as he admitted that he took my work seriously, I also took my work seriously and, in so doing, I lost the opportunity to see my best friend one last time. I am so angry with myself. I would have smuggled that Lamb Madras from Kebab Mahal into the hospital and watched him eat it with glee. Sure, we would have got into trouble as it’s hard to disguise the smell of Lamb Madras in a hospital, but y’know…

Davy and his family came to my wedding, one of the few I invited, and he went on to become Godfather to my daughter Rosie. And, of course, I have a fantastic story about my family trip to Edinburgh to show Davy his Goddaughter for the first time. It involves a train, the then Prime Minister, Special Branch, a disgraced former Ministerial advisor and Sky News. It was highly embarrassing and it was televised. Of course, of bloody course, Mr Poirot saw it and I was woken the next morning at the Borders cottage where we were staying by Davy who, characteristically, sent me a text that said: “WTF? Sky News? Can’t wait to hear about this one”.

In the end, the meeting between Davy and Rosie was utterly beautiful and as I sit here writing I’m welling up again. To see such a big man, whose hands are like shovels, gently cradle my tiny, two week-old daughter close to his chest, enveloping her in those great hands, and hear him whisper “hello my darling”…to see him weeping gently as he held her….well, what can I say? For her part Rosie also loved Davy. She called him Godzilla. When she found out he was in hospital she wrote him a get well card. She has a great heart and put a lot of effort into it and told him he was the “best Godfather ever” and that she wanted to visit him. Sadly, by the time she had written it Davy was gone and this week has been a tough one for her.

So now Davy is gone and we all have a big hole in our lives. I’m trying to fill the hole by writing about him. The stories are near endless and there isn’t enough room here, or appetite from my audience to hear them. But for every story I have, his family have one hundred or more. The pain and sorrow I feel they feel tenfold, twentyfold… They have lost a father, a husband and, in the case of Cassie, a best friend. I can offer them only small comfort in the face of their immense distress and it is this: I spent a lot of long days and nightshifts with Davy in our self-selected work partnership. I know what drove him and I understand his fears. It’s not complicated. What drove him, Trish, Abi, Jen, Cassie, was you. But this drive had unintended consequences. It made me a better person for a start. I know I am more balanced and mature as a result of knowing Davy; I know how to behave and, more importantly, why to behave. Also, there are cops out there who owe perhaps their lives, but certainly their careers to Davy. And he did all this, improving people’s lives, without fanfare or fuss and just because it was his way. He was setting you an example and therefore setting the rest of us an example too. So he’s a real hero, perhaps THE hero, because his heroism is something we all can attain if we, like him, are simply decent people. Rest in Peace Davy. We are all far better for knowing you and knowing of you.

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