[ fiction - september 12 ]
I work in a posh estate agents in Blythswood Square. All women apart frae the bosses. Sitting in front of rows oí computers wi oor heads sticking over the top oí the screens, like a mass mammogram. And I see their faces. Aí shocked. Lookiní past me at the window. Iíve got mah back to it, but you know how it is, you think, ď itís something to dae wií meĒ. (beat pause) Youíre never alone wií paranoia...(beat) Thereís a druggie staring in the window. Usual look: hood up. Like he committed suicide last week and wants the supervisor Ďcos heís no sure. ďSícuse me. Do you have a returns policy?Ē
Itís my brother.
Hovering by the door to the back office, staring at the figure outside then at me, Jerryís making the connection. He knows. Mona and Jackie could rabbit for Scotland, but theyíre dumb, and Iím thinking - you all know what this feels like otherwise ye wouldnae be lookiní at me the way ye are. Anyway, Iím oot the door quick as I can and whisk him away.
ďWhat you daeiní here?Ē
Numbed me. Just numb. Tuesday morning. You donít expect anything on a Tuesday morning. Weíre walking. Just along the street. Folk passing. The occasional quick look at me in my power dress and him wií his wee skinny arse and bones everywhere. Up here the likes oí Perry and me are ten a penny. Separate weíre no worth a second glance, but together weíre a weird double act for the city, and thatís what draws the stares: the combination. Sublime and Ridiculous, Aspiration and Resignation. Two of Glasgowís children. Origins Port Glasgow to be socially authentic, a few miles down the Clyde, but little difference.
Just walking. Heís head down, hood leaning forward to my left and his wee bony shoulders stickiní through, aní I look at him, secret like, really look at him as if Iím makiní sure I fully appreciate this is mah wee brother and what the hell does that aí mean? What goes on in that wee thing, that wee, frail body? I heard an Ayrshire bus driver tell him once he had Shouthers nairrier that a kipper atween the eenĒ. He had to ask me for the translation. ďShoulders narrower than a kipper between the eyesĒ. He was red wií rage. But the bus driver was right. Thereís nothing to him. And this morning that nothing is less than ever. Nothing, shrinking away.
ďLast night. Funeralís no till Monday. Ye gaun?Ē
ďAre you gaun?Ē
ďIíll go if you go.Ē
ďAnd if I donít go?Ē
ďIíll no go.Ē
ďIf a stuck mah haun in the fire, would you stick yours in?Ē
ďThen what difference does it make if I go or no?Ē
ďIím no gaun if youíre no gaun.Ē
We walk on for a while; wordless, all kinds of radio signals buzzing between us. Just padding along fighting the silence.
ďPerry, yeíre ma wee brother... What a fuckiní state.Ē
ďFuck off, JessieĒ
Heís turned and off, all huffed and hurt, a wee skinny rat in rags. I go after him wií that pang of remorse that humanizes you. Like you have to hurt them before you can love them, and Iím like that with mah wee brother - I have to burst through the anger to get there. Angerís the gateway to everything up here.
We walk together for while sayiní nothing because what is there to say? Nothing. Or so much you wouldnae know where to start. Just paddiní along the pavement no giviní a damn about the stares and Iím thinking heís like a clothes horse hanginí wií litter. Iím looking for the right phrase. Phrases are my coinage even at a moment like this I canít stop it. Itís like a Touretteís syndrome; Iím recording everything that happens and Iíll sift through it later for anything thatís worth using.
But thereís this feeling between us that weíve felt all our lives. Mine and Perryís. Itís where the bewilderment settles. We could string it between us like a clothesline.
ďYou have notĒ I give the big sister sigh and he gives the wee brother eff-off look.
Death on a plate of course. Watchiní him hoover it up. Heís starving.
I make him take the hood down when he comes in. He complains but he does it. And then I wish Iíd never. He has the usual totemic shaved head and you can see the latticework of scars on his wee skull. Some oí them are hot looking as if they might be infected or still fresh and healing. His skull is like the canals on Mars. Some bastard has given these to my wee brother and I just start weeping. I donít know why. It isnít the scars. Iíve seen scars on him before. Maybe theyíve just triggered something. He stops and looks around to make sure nobodyís watching.
ďCímon, Jess. You greetiní for him?Ē
Iím not sure why Iím crying. Maybe because the fantasy that one day he might get it together and turn up like a real father has finally gone. Hope is a bastard. That Pandora? What a bitch, and Iím thinking, thatís a line I can use...
That Pandora? What a bitch! She was from Paisley. Clearly. No other explanation.
Thereís nothing to write it down on, so I keep repeating it. If I repeat a riff two or three times and make a decision to write it down as soon as possible, I remember it. If I do write something down, I remember it and donít have to look at what Iíve written. The brain has mysterious ways. So Iím in there, rehearsing it among the plates of black pudding and chips staring at Perry but not seeing him.
That Pandora! Uncorkiní the Buckieís, and swallowiní the woes oí the world. Then pishiní them oot on the rest of us... Or throwiní them up.
He says something and I say shut up in case I forget.
...makiní sure the last boak is hope. The one ye want. A ower your Hi-Top Chuck Taylors! Ruined by Hope and deep fried pizza!
When Iím finished I say I was just trying to remember something. Thatís the real gulf between me and Perry; no the job, no the waterside lease agreement; itís something that wakes me in the night racing with ideas and gets me out oí bed writing. What has he got to get him out of bed? Except fear or cluckiní? Whatever wakes him in the night itís no ideas for a stand-up. He has nothing. He probably has loads of something but nothing anybody would want. Nothing that keeps the wee flame flickering - and thatís the cruel thing - God didnae put anything in there and I hate him for that. Thereís no God up here any way. Just bigotry. Lifeís too fuckiní hard for God up here.
Thatís what the tears are for. Perry. He isnae gonna come back and be the father my wee brother needs. And my wee brother needs a lot of something. Iím okay. I work for an estate agent.
ďSo are ye gaun tae the funeral?Ē
ďWhat for? What did that bastard ever dae for us?Ē
He nods and takes a suck of tea. ďSo, are ye gaun?Ē
Are yougaun?Ē ď Just tae make sure heís deid maybe.Ē
I give him that last line in my head. Give him a wit he hasnít got. Itís a wee corkscrewed act of love.
In the cafť staring at the Ordnance Survey on Perryís skull, Iíve got the material, or at least the theme. Iím happy. No happy. But itís something. Keeping things at bay. Thatís really in a sense what it is up here. Keeping it at bay. And I need new material. But thereís another feeling thatís pissiní me off and making me wonder if thereís something wrong wií me. I should be feeling something else today. This is one of those big days ye wonder about when youíre a kid. The death of a parent. Love them or loathe them itís one of Natureís big ones, and you spend nights under yir sheet wondering what it will be like. Terrified of it. Even though there were days when I felt like pushing them both under a bus. But Iím just aware of a vague uneasiness and concern for Perry, as if Perryís faither isnae mine. I donít know what I should be feeling, but Iím sure, as usual, that whatever I am feeling isnae right. And what about Perry? Whatís he actually feeling? Heís got that expression as if he couldnae find his arse wií both hands. But thatís normal for Perry. Everything bewilders him. If he did know what he was feeling he would never say anyway. And I suppose Iím the same.
I pay and we leave the cafť. He waits outside, his back to the window like a hound thatís picked up a scent of the netherworld thatís his home. I go out and without a word we start walking back towards the office.
I buy him twenty quid credit for his phone and take him to the cash machine. I give him twenty, then soften and add another ten. ďFor Godís sake spend some oí this on food.Ē
ďMy arse ye will. For Godís sake, Perry... For Godís sake.Ē
We just hover a bit. The sunís bright, a late winter one. I hate winter. I hate summer in this city. Summerís for open spaces - beaches, meadows, Daquiri by a blue sea. Summerís wasted trapped in tenements and Perspex bus shelters.
ďSo ye gaun tae the funeral?Ē
I realize itís nothing to do wií dad. Itís me and Perry. Itís important to him; he wants to go with his big sister. He wants some illusion of a family, just tae suspend the disbelief for an hour. But his neediness makes me want to hurt him. ďIíve told ye I donít know!Ē Iím torturing him and he just stands there, used tae it.
ďWhat timeís it start?Ē
ďIíll find oot.Ē
ďYe know where it is, yah bampot?Ē
ďFuck off, Iíll find oot.Ē
ďWill ye ring? , Will ye?Ē
He says nothing for a while. Then he has to reconnect.
ďHowís the job?Ē
ďHowís the comedy?Ē
ďFine. Got a gig at the university.Ē
He says it with wonder, stressing the second syllable. ďUniVERsity?Ē What would the likes of us be doiní with the university? Up there on the hill? Our eyes should not rise to such heights. Yet one of us is invited in and has her name on flyers on strategic lampposts all over Glasgow. She will be where great men have mapped out the future...
And Adam Smith tappiní his landlord sayiní, ďSoon as Iíve pushed through this Division oíLabour idea I can let you have it..Ē
We stop a street away. He wants to stay with me somehow, but how can he? I grab him and kiss his stubbly, scarred head.
ďGet aff for Christís sakeĒ and he jerks his head back.
ďSee youĒ and I watch him wander off into the low sun. Heís so thin it almost bleaches him invisible. Heís disappearing in light.
ďRing Perry! Donít piss around. Ring!Ē
My father was an alcoholic who beat the ordure oot of me and my wee brother and oor mother consistently for years.
ďAh weíll see you on Live From the Apollo yet. No doubt about it.Ē
Why could Perry no have had a father like Mr Rollo the boss? A good man. Maybe in private he bakes angel cakes in a tutu but in the office heís a grown up with a good heart. Understanding. A solicitor. No just another con man in the property racket. He doesnít have bad feelings about what happened with Perry hanging outside the window like Deathís apprentice. If youíve never had the shame you donít feel it for others. But heís got... what..? Concern? No. Whatís the word? Empathy? Sympathy? Words are my coinage. Words are going to help me get a mortgage. What is the fuckiní word? Why canít I think of it? Maybe itís the day thatís driven it away. All that sewage rises up and drowns you on days like this.
When the Tennants wore off he would express deep remorse for his negative parental modelling, ruffle our hair, gie us fifty pee and say sincerely ďThere ye are then. Aíright?Ē and like dutiful offspring we would remain silent in gratitude for the temporary truce and fifty pence worth of love. Which he would demand back wií threats as soon as the drouth was back on him.
Naw. No, Iíll no use that. Reeks too much of self-pity.
Fuckiní true though. But not what people on a night out want to hear. Keep it light, keep it bright, Peter Pan, Peter Pan.
ďMr Knudsen called. Can you give him a ring?Ē
ďThanks Moira.Ē Moiraís a good sort. I can see sheís concerned. They all are. Itís in the stares. Blank, no expression, just looking intae ye. I know that stare. Iíve seen it a thousand times. From teachers when you and your wee brother come in wií black eyes. The stareís enough. You donít want them asking if youíre all right because then ye have to say aye and they turn away and thatís that. The wee moment of somebody really seeing you is over and youíre nothing again. But ye donít want them to draw attention to the sewage dump ye come from. They know anyway, but neither party wishes to pick over the details.
ďIs something wrong, Jess?Ē itís Jerry. Good looking Jerry. New flat down by the river near me, but he owns it. Married to a teacher. Another grown up. I wonder what it feels like to feel grown up.
ďThat was my brother.Ē Itís out.
They guessed anyway, and are probably not remotely bothered. Iím no telling them about dad, but it must be in the room with me because I have this eerie feeling that the brother explanation isnít enough.
ďWhatís wrong Jess?Ē No bullshit Nan this time, red haired and full of flames. She likes it every night. At her age.
ďOch familiesĒ I say, ďfamiliesĒ. I know she knows.
Compassion. Thatís the word. Mr Rollo has compassion.
When he wasnae aff his face on Tennants he would have recourse to brown, temazipan, puff, white and the occasional pipe. And in the salad days, Neurofen Plus. A varied and sophisticated palate...
No... maybe not... I donít know... I donít think so... They love all that underclass stuff up here, itís our national anthem, but... Maybe I need a bit of distance. Itís been a shock. Maybe this is me roughing it up a bit because I need to. Itís no actually funny, Jess, and if itís no funny itís no comedy and youíre no a comedienne, youíre a soap character. Whatever you think of a parent, hate him, love him, be indifferent, the news of the big one hits somethiní fundamental in you.
I ring Mr Knudsen. They have a viewing on the Cowal Peninsula this afternoon and I am to meet them there. Iíve been looking forward to this since Jerry gave me their file. It completely lifted my days, because from the dump we grew up in on the other side of the Firth, we were always looking over the water at the low green hills and woods of Argyll as Paradise a few watery miles away, another Scotland. No our Scotland. We wernae Scotland, we were disowned; just a demographic they stopped short of in the market targets.
That was the paradox of where we were reared, if you can call the experience we had being reared. There is wealth and a grand past to the town of Port Glasgow; rich folk still live up in their fine houses, but down in the wasteland, in the council slums, dead tenements, the streets blown wií litter, down among the junkies and the violence where the fourteen year olds shoot other fourteen year olds for Temazipan is where you find our reservation, down where under-sixteens murdering for a drug prescribed to cancer sufferers is the only social aspiration.
However, just across the Firth of Clyde lie the green silhouettes of Argyll. The Highlands: far enough away to be mysterious, close enough to be a promise, always calm and beautiful, everything where we were wasnít. Folks said it was nice across there. Some said ďAch thereís nothiní ower thereĒ as if where we were had something.
Since I was a wee girl I climbed the hill behind the scheme and stared at that peninsula. The sea and the islands in the Firth to the west, and the mountains of Arran to the southwest were like the edge of the world. Some days they would blend in a mysterious shimmer - sea, sky and land - and it was easy to see how early people worshipped the elements. I would watch how Cowal changed in the different light and seasons, and imagine meadows thick with wild flower, or hills dense with snow and white heavy trees and me walking my dog through these magical landscapes. We had no dog of course, all that was the stuff of imagination, but where I come from if you find a toehold on something else, you hang on, because whatís around you wonít let you go. And you keep your mouth shut. An aspiration or wish contains a rejection of where you are, and if youíre stuck down there and you know youíll never get up from it, you want everybody else stuck with ye. Kids wií an instinct for self preservation donít wander the streets of Port Glasgow expressing an interest in post Gehry Deconstructivism.
For some reason I never got across. Well, the Knudsenís wanted to view a house weíre selling over there - derivative Modern Movement Scots with lots of Mackintosh design flourish, five bedrooms, two with en-suite, large gardens front and rear with mature trees, and spectacular views over the Firth of Clyde - and I had been given the job of showing it to them. Sometimes I think there is a benign God. Then that bastard Knudsen phones and cancels on me. On this of all days.
When he did come back to see us he was habitually incontinent on the family sofa. Whether or no we were sitting on it at the time.
Fuck them. Iím going. Iíll just pretend they still want to view it.
Jerry asks me if I want to go home. He can send someone else.
ďIím fine Jerry. Is there a car available?Ē
ďItís your business Jess, but if thereís anything you want to do, take a day off or...Ē
I tell him about Dad. Sometimes you have to respond to decency. He reacts as if my father had been normal. I correct him as discreetly as I can. I donít want him or anyone else feeling they should offer me something I donít need. I tell him itís a relief. Just a bit of a shock.
As I say it I realize itís no a relief. Itís something else - I donít know what yet - but I canít let him or the others know that. Itís too complex for simple sympathy. But I do need something. Need to get to the Cowal Peninsula that afternoon.
Have ye ever watched the Chuckle Brothers wií a wet arse?
From Glasgow the Gourock ferry lies at the end of a long drive past Paisley, then through my hometown and its marginally upmarket neighbour Greenock, a strip of urban degeneration between the Clyde and lowland hills that might be bonny to the rest of the world, but for me are disfigured by the ugliness of my childhood. These towns generated the industrial wealth of the west coast, and once teemed with life and energy; they had a working class with a social vocabulary and great pride in their skills and their identity. Now they generate statistics that make police forces in Naples and Finland relieved thereís somewhere worse.
We have a small fleet of Peugeots with our logo blazoned on the doors. Iíve given each a name and chatter away to them when Iím driving. Sometimes theyíre like a wee niece or nephew, sometimes theyíre an ally backing my argument, or they listen to my moans about some wanker of a customer. On rare occasions theyíre just cars. Today Iím with Bella, the sweetest and most feminine one. Donít ask me why. I donít want to go into this too deeply; itís harmless, thereís nobody else to talk to sometimes, so why no the car? Is it no just another way of thinking? I bet the countryís full of respectable citizens who have conversations with their cars or bicycles and feel much better after a trip to Morrisons. Cheaper than therapy. Anyway at my urging Bella sprints past everything on the motorway - theyíre nippy as well as receptive - but as we approach Port Glasgow the nerves get to me, and she automatically slows as the heart of darkness nears. She knows; sheís like a wee dog now, raising her hackles. I am about to flash through the place where my father lies in statelessness as rapidly as possible, and I hit that fucker guilt for some reason. The motorway runs out to an ordinary road before Port Glasgow like the frontier where the civilised world has given up and weíre spewed onto the reservation in a weird fuzz hoping no one sees us. Especially Perry. I donít want to have to tell him Iím no taking him. Nothing will interfere with this day, no even mother if sheís sober enough to recognise me. Once she kicked out dad, she took to the same poison herself.
Depression is impregnated in the brickwork. Somewhere in this town plannerís debris my fatherís corpse lies with no one to give a damn. All the hallmarks of defeat display themselves; the day is warm outside but figures shuffle about in coats and mufflers, prolonging winter as far as they can. I get through as quickly as is legal, but every roundabout and traffic light holds me up, and the car with its logo and lettering stands out like a butterfly on cowshit. The occasional head rises and glances at the wee gay car (in the old meaning of the word), then stares blankly at the alien driving, but no one notices the alien is a daughter of the city. Eventually Iím through and my spirits soar with the freedom of the open road to Gourock.
Dunoon sprinkles along the peninsula on the other side of the water. I donít know how far it is - a mile, two miles - I have no sense of distance. The ferry comes for us straight as a dye, no bigger than a dustpan carrying toy cars and vans towards the bin. As it gets closer it gets exponentially bigger as if perspective and scale operate to other laws here. But itís all so ordinary to everyone but me; the ferry docks effortlessly, the cars from Cowel drive off without any sense of occasion, then the ferrymen waves us on and Iím terrified. The ramp seems too thin to take our weight, but the car ahead shoots on with confidence. I follow in fear of marking the wee Peugeot or driving it into the Clyde. The ferryman sees me over-revving. Heís the type whose daily kick is his derision of nervous drivers wií sly shakes of the head and leery grins, a small time sadist for whom the world of dry land is probably brimful of threats and post-its of his own insignificance. But Iím on. The wee carís safe and so am I, Mr Grim Ferryman, Iím happy now. How are you? Still miserable? Poor man, you look like you left your kidney on the Kazie, and you have a face like a skelped arse. The Buckie face. Perhaps, like many others of your tribe, life is a puzzle to you and Tennants the only Oracle.
The path tae happiness is paved wií liver problems...
The wee car is joined by a couple of others including an old fashioned Land Rover with a canopy whose smells of old engine oil and stained canvas exhales a breath of Highland class across the ferry. Thatís the way it should be pointing north to the old land. I should be swaddled in Gore-Tex, cord trousers and tots of pure malt in cut glass tumblers, instead of the livery of residential property agents. In Glasgow folk spit at us when we drive by in our company cars because weíre lackeys of the propertied classes and because gobbing is the cityís psychological gesture, the local Touretteís syndrome: cop car - gob, estate agent - gob. Up here that constitutes a political philosophy. But I doubt if any of them would have the bottle to gob an old fashioned Land Rover. New money yes, gob away. New moneyís just some bastard thatís got above himself. But old money? Bow down. Yir Lordship, forgive my friendís intemperate hochle. I will give him a right skelping when you have passed.
In case we sink and I canít force the door open against the underwater pressure I get out. Fairly pointless because I canít swim, but I place a casual arm on the ferry rail, disregarding the wim-wams rampaging in my belly at the proximity of water a few feet below. Itís hardly a voyage round the Horn, but weíre standing on metal thatís going to be floating on liquid, and that doesnít seem natural.
I wait for the engine to surge towards Dunoon like a D-Day landing craft, but the ferry is so smooth itís slipped from terra firma by a dozen yards before I notice. However, once in the Firth violent vibrations, metallic clashes and grinding sounds bang up from under the hull as if weíre sailing across a scrap yard instead of the Clyde. Despite this underwater battering the land behind recedes and the land in front approaches in a miracle of coordination to my untravelled eyes. Staring east back up the Firth for a glimpse of home, back to where my father has found his final blackout, I can see nothing but the bonny hills and water. The derelict towns along this stretch are hidden from view.
As Dunoon arrives in a gentle drift I can hardly prevent my inner child from wetting herself. This trip and the sail to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, is the trip thousands of kids from the West Coast traditionally made for the annual family holiday. No us though. Holidays in our house were scarcer than Gnana yoga, so the feelings that were programmed for the three feet tall me with my bucket and spade, have lain dormant ever since. Now they suddenly wake and are all over me in a rash.
The peninsula is close enough to pick out a mock Tudor hotel just beyond the jetty. The vertical beams stand out in the sun like a bar code. Mock Tudor is an English thing. We have no equivalent - Mock Stewart would be peat and pebbledash if it existed - but whereas mock Tudor is derided down south, up here itís exotic, radical in a way, outrť to the point of social subversion - decidedly English middle class, and as such the conditioned response from any passing locals will surely be a pish in the hedge on the way back from the pub.
Two other drivers smoking on the deck douse their fags in the Clyde and get back into their cars. I follow suit and start worrying about driving off the ramp, but when the time comes and the shore slips under the ramp, with no ceremony, no welcome for the travellers, everybody just roars away like horses from the start gate and turns for various parts of the highlands. I tentatively nose ashore, but finally Iím there, on tartan Terra Firma, sweeping up the views of the hills, the bay and the bare low woods that lie on the floor of the valley like pubic hair stretching north towards the mythical heartlands of the Highlands. Behind me the Firth and the sea lead to magical islands, the Atlantic, and eventually, New York. Itís weird how many Glaswegians dream of the USA: how this dream place lurks in the cityís collective unconscious and manifests in the Glaswegian love of country music and waistcoats. Glasgow must have more heel-worn cowboy boots than anywhere east of Tuscon. Maybe itís because it was where the boats left for the New World and the hopes of an escape from the slums and poverty was symbolised by the great vessels fading into the violet sunsets round Bute and the open sea towards America. Whatever, a Glaswegian is always happiest when heís facing west, his sunset eyes to the US and his arse to the rest of Scotland.
I donít know which way to turn. I park near the mock Tudor hotel to let the other cars pass, and catch my breath. The Land Rover rattles its old diesel engine up through the gears towards the hills and the cabinet of single malts. Across the inlet to my right is a broad bay with tiny, white houses at the waterís edge that look like pebbles. A hill towers above them. It seems huge, though nothing in Scotland is really huge. But Iíve never been this close to a real hill, or a hill that looks like a hill and no just an ascent of more rubbish like the hills behind where I come from. Iíve never seen so much sunlight on so much space. A hill of sunlight. In the city there are only packets of sunlight hemmed in by buildings and shadow, but here thereís no shadow, just warming green stretching up to the sky. Even in late winter the intensity of the green against the blue of the sky is unreal. The grass on my home turf is anaemic and dead, and a blue sky a waste of beauty. But here the colours glow in subtle browns and greens. Nature really is full of colour. Even in winter. Maybe they also glow brightly back on the other side of the water in the spaces between the derelict tenements but nobody notices. Maybe harshness drains colour, silences birdsong, subdues all Natureís glory, or maybe itís all there but canít be seen because it seems such an irrelevance to the lives being led. Maybe I have to come somewhere else to see whatís always around me. Summers must be glorious here. For the three days they last. At least weíve finally got a day of sunshine after that bastard of a winter, so I should make the most of it.
As I start off I notice a sign by the hotel entrance that slightly punctures my Brigadoon euphoria. It points the way to the Sheriffís Court. Even in this shortbread Eden, the weeds of the life less happy prevail.
I want to cram in as much as I can before darkness and the ferry back to Danteís Electric Inferno. I didnít value the house and Iíll have to see it so I can fictionalise the Knudsenís viewing and rejection. Old man Knudsen told me that morning theyíve bid for a place in Helensburgh and wanted to thank me very much for all the effort and help. Bang goes my commission, so this tripís a wee bit of recompense, but however I cut it, Iím involved in a daylong lie and it better be detailed and convincing. Iím playing hooky and the naughty joy of the days when Iíd bunk off school streams back to me as a sense memory. Unfortunately most of my class bunked off with me and I went back to school to get away from them. That was how I got an education. But as Iím sitting in the Peugeot pondering all this, a terrible regret pours into me. It seems to come out of nothing and racks me down into breathlessness. Iím shaking. Itís my dad of course. Iíve been racing away from his death since I got back to the office. But racing hasnít left it behind. Now that Iíve stopped itís crossed the Clyde and got me. Like that posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the one led by the guy in the straw hat who just keeps cominí no matter how far they run. There is no deep emotion of sadness or anything you would associate with grief. Just that shock that folk feel when then they have a funny turn, when the body does something unexpected and reminds you that whateverís in your diary, the hoody wií the big scythe has your name, and heís running a check on you at the moment.
I have to fight for breath and all sorts of disaster scenarios are flickering through my mind. Is this a panic attack? A heart murmur brought on by stress or unfelt grief or something? Or a lifetime of saturated fat? I donít know; I just sit breathing as best I can - which is no very well. Breathing has never demanded my attention before; Iíve just let it get on with it, but now Iím thinking about it I donít know what to do. And Iím scared. Cars whip past. Folk going about ordinary stuff, having ordinary days. I feel like Iím staring out at the normal world from behind barbed wire.
It begins to pass. The hill seems unmoved. It just sits and cloud shadows climb over it. I can hear the wind in grass or branches or something that makes sounds like breathing. The wind has no problem breathing. The sound of wind gently blowing through something or other - I donít know what. I canít see a thing the wind would blow through, there are no leaves on trees yet, there are no trees here anyway, apart from the ones way over there in the valley below the hill, but theyíre too far away to hear. Maybe the sighing is in my head. But what ever I hear - real or imagined - itís not a city sound. A cloud shadow streams up the hill, racing up its long slopes like a baby animal, making its way upwards towards mummyís neck. I watch the edges change shape as it dips into hollows and slopes in the hillside that you canít see in the sunshine. It floats up, right to the top, then over the brow and away like a cloth being pulled off and the hill is left in peace again, bright in the sun. I give out one of those long breaths.
My father is my father, whether he was a lucky man or not, a good, bad or indifferent one; his time at playing the game has ended. He didnít leave the table richer than he arrived and thatís sad, but no a crime. Put the anger away, nature seems to have said, and have a little respect. A manís a man for aí that, and all that.
I feel a warmth for him. I donít know where thatís come from. Itís no something Iíd tell my mother; sheíd stick the head in me if I did. That bag of disappointment, rage, and regret, which is what Iíve lugged around from aí that wreckage is subverted by a feeling that is tender? Thatís no a word up here. But thatís what Iím feeling. Tenderness. And sadness. Itís, almost pleasant in a masochistic way. Weird. Whatever the logic of human experience, it is beyond the logic of the human being.
Dunoon offers a diversity of international cuisine up Argyll Street. A warm aroma of mince pies and cock-a-leekie from the Bakery of Distinction tempt me with an indigenous Scots staple. Or there is the flamboyance of Italian, where a moment of Euro internationalism has spread the net by offering tapas alongside lasagne and cannelloni. I am caught in a gustatory quandary till the Pavlovian response of my saliva glands to the prospect of a sweet and sour draw me towards the dark, but by no means unpleasant ambience of the traditional Scottish Chinky.
Apparently in Bearsden theyíll only buy organic heroin. Theyíre no intae prescription drugs either, because everything has to be natural..Ē
Two roads cross the peninsula and merge by a tiny village on the other side on the shores of Loch Fyne. From there the traveller can apparently glimpse the mountains of the north that are the setting of the thousand-year romance with malnutrition and slaughter. Itís not far, but Iím worried about the miles racking up on the clock. However, thereís no point in coming here just to suck Singapore noodles and window shop the streets of Dunoon. Find the childhood meadows and trees laden with snow, Jessie. Go by one road and come back by the other.
However there is a drawback. My life has been lived in crowds and noise. If thereís no muzak in the bar I have an extinction crisis. Within minutes of leaving Dunoon the opposite of my usual audio landscape is in abundance. The road stretches straight in front, straight behind and is totally empty, not a car nor a human from horizon to horizon. I have never been in a place outside the lavvy where I cannot see a human being. I come from crowded places and here I feel as if I am the opening of a Coen Brothers film and the only thing I am going to meet on this road is Javier Bardem, who will flag me down and I wonít be able to resist. Iíll obediently pull in, get out and let him place his stunbolt gun against my forehead and the last thing Iíll ever hear is him telling me Iím no as good looking as Kelly MacDonald. The silent, empty loch slipping past on the left has creatures in it that are stalking me. The only thing I hear is the Dunoon Community radio FM, and though it is blaring out at top volume I can hear the silence behind it like an invisible threat.
Silence is dangerous where I come from. Silence is what happens when everythingís about to kick off. It signals disaster and is the tension thatís broken by the sound of destruction. Of fists on yir motherís face, or the screams of yir wee brother as he is belted within an inch of his tiny life. For me silence is the lull before some terrible storm, the last second of safety before the mayhem. You hear it in the nanosecond before a bar fight breaks out and the glassing starts; a weird silence descends for an atom of time then all hell breaks loose. Nobody can abide it where I come from, so this place with nothing but the noise of tyres on the road is asking unreasonable things of me. Face it they say, face it, so I swerve into a passing place by the loch side, turn off the radio, switch off the engine, and check thereís no sign of Javier Bardem.
Leaning against the car and looking at the empty hills and the long silent loch promote bizarre anxieties. Thereís nothing under this faultless blue sky within my usual points of reference. Iím being invited to speak a language Iíve never learnt, as if Iíve fallen from the sky onto another planet. My style has been one of garrulousness, the rapid production of nineteen words tae the dozen and getting the laughs and responses back like a soundboard that declares I exist. Maybe thatís the way Iíve made things alright - by filling everything with voices and noise, and maybe thatís pathetic but I havenae time tae consider the psychology implications, Iím too busy making the rent. These hills around me are purportedly the oldest in the world. At one time they were as high as the Himalayas but were shrunk by a billion years of weather and underachievement. No so long ago where I am standing was under a thousand feet of ice. Nothing will come back to me from any punch line I deliver here. I have no significance in this long adaptation from prehistoric times, no capacity to feel the miracle of creation that surrounds me. Itís fine at a distance or on a brochure. Being in it is an alien experience. My sense of me - no matter how ragged or deluded that might be - is found in noise and movement. Like a radar system, something has to bounce back or I have an experience of non-existence. All comedians are radar machines, pinging out the riff. If the laugh bounces back youíre alive, if nothing comes back, youíre dead. Infinite space and silence therefore is infinite death. Cities, audiences, pubs, places that are teeming and loud are the natural forces that keep me going and this place is the opposite of that. Iím like a shark - if I stop moving I die. And nothing moves here. Some prehistoric fear has got me well pinned. This isnít just another world, itís another dimension in space-time and Iíve no knowledge of what happens here. I feel like a trespasser as well. An alien peasant on forbidden land. These are no the things I expected when I was staring across here as a scared wee six year old full of longing for a fairy tale.
After a while I calm down and begin to notice the smells - of what I donít know, but they smell nice. Everything stinks in my background. Smell has always been an unwanted sense, but here itís pleasant. The sunlight begins to drain the white noise.
How long has Perry left on this earth going the way he is? No long. The odds shorten every day. I often think of dead Perry, of his tiny still body. I visualise identifying him in the morgue. I can see the officials standing round, the looks on their faces as another piece of Glasgow dross is about to be stamped and shovelled into the bin. I know one day it will happen, and I weep and turn my back on the hill for some reason as if thereís anything there to see me weep. I can cry for Perry who technically is still alive - if cluckiní from one drug to another is being alive - but not for my father, and certainly not for myself. Faither did ye ever come here and stand in this valley or a glen like it? Did ye ever feel something different; did a notion of how things could have a decent part to them ever reveal itself to you? Or like me did ye feel uneasy in all this peace, did it bring nothing but suspicions of your own deep shabbiness and the unchanging desperation of your present and your future?
I doubt he ever made it here. Or anywhere like this. Too far from the pub. But you never know; maybe he came here when he was a boy and thought it amazing. Or maybe he came and felt he had no right to this kind of beauty, that this is something for others, no for the likes of us. Maybe Dad was once like wee Perry and that thought gives me an inch of sympathy for him. Suddenly I want to see him one last time and tell him a thousand things I never got the chance to say. For a second among the dead bracken and heather I see him as just another punter thatís drawn the short straw with everything that follows on from that.
I have an impulse to say something, to leave an audible mark on all this silence, to tell the hills what that bastard never gave me a chance to say. Then I realise there were times when we said all those things. He wasnae always drunk. He was a sentimentalist at times, a right laugh too. I remember times on the sofa when he would be burying wee Perry under the cushions, growling at him like a monster and Perry and me squealing wií delight and a few cans later weíd be running for our lives in terror. There were glimpses of what it could have been, just tae see it swept away in tides of Tennants. Tantalus in the tenements. But they were there for a brief moment. Remember them Jessie, never forget them.
A couple of words bubble out as if someone else has said them and I have to ask myself, what was that? As if I didnít quite hear. I think it was ďIím sorry DadĒ.
Why? ďIím sorry?Ē For what? What the fuck..? ďIím sorry things turned out bad for you dad.Ē Is that what I mean? Iím not going to ask. Or think about it too deeply. Just let it be that itís been said.
Then it dawns on me that Iím just sorry.
A few minutes are a long time to just stand. I begin to hear the loch and the tiny noise at its edges. Otherwise there is no sound. Absolutely nothing. Iím crying. But my tears are silent. I donít want the hills to hear or any one or anything to see me, rabbit, deer, early bumblebee, whateverís out there. Weeping is never to be shown. Do not bring your tears in here, or Iíll give ye something tae cry about. There are animals out there, fish in the loch, living out their natural span. Natureís vicious, they say. Dead chicks in hawkís talons and all that. Do animals weep? Does a plover grieve when she sees a stoat run away with her chick? Beneath this peace and beauty is death, fear, and suffering. Where in Godís name do you get away from it all? Tibet?
It is beautiful here. And the quiet isnít threatening me as much.
I wish Perry was here. Heíd be cluckiní of course, obsessing about how he was going to get his next hit, but maybe some of this would still get through and leave a wee, bright smudge somewhere. It would scare him too. Címon. Letís get back in the car. This giíes me the heebie-jeebies. I can just hear him. Give it time Perry, give it a chance. Thereís nothing to attack you here Perry. Except maybe a psychotic stoat. Nothing hereíll gií you another scar on your wee head.
A car emerges in long shot away on the Coen Brothers horizon. All peace takes flight and Javier Bardemís back. I live my life as a film or a monologue. Itís the way I make sense of it: scenes, monologues and dialogues, whole stages, soap and movie sets in my head swarming with characters and narratives. So the car is not a car. Itís a force, nemesis coming at me from distance. Iíve never focussed on a car from this range, like a tiny threat attacking from the vanishing point; High Noon with a long strip of tar macadam instead of a railway line disappearing into infinity, and not a Gary Cooper for miles. Down this strip will come all our nightmares. I imagine what it must be like in Iraq or Afghanistan watching a car cross those desolate landscapes where you can see for miles, see it - like this one - approach for ages and youíre standing wondering if itís a bomb hurtling towards you or just mini-cab late as usual. At what point are you able to read something into the movement and make a decision? When does the shifting object become a personal thing with a human in it who may or may not have an intention for you? Should you fire and if so at what point? Two hundred yards? One? Or does the fear make all the decisions?
I presume the driver can see me; the Peugeot and me are the only things in this landscape that donít change with the seasons. I feel arteries hammering where I didnít know I had arteries. The first thin notes of the Doppler effect reach me. I know these things - you have to collect a whole compendium of weird facts and knowledge if youíre to have any range as a comedian, so I read all the time, picking up interesting but unconnected facts from string theory to PMT rituals in the Amazon basin. I now see itís an old Toyota pick-up, black and dusty, humming towards me. A ladder juts over the cabin like a sailing shipís prow. A man is driving. Alone. He doesnít look like Javier Bardem. He has grey hair and even from this distance I pick up the blue in his eyes. How can eyes be that blue? Tinted contacts? Judging by the vehicle type and the state of it I would guess heís a builder or agricultural worker, hardly the type to wear tinted contacts, but then Iím not au fait with the tribal traditions of the Highlander. Has a thousand years of kilts changed the gender consciousness? The periwinkle eyes are looking straight at me, and as he passes his right hand rises from the wheel and salutes. ďGrand dayĒ whips past and the sound waves stretch with the trailing Doppler.
The loch blurs past in sparkles of sunlight on my left. To the right lots and lots of naked birch trees, their skinny pale trunks shining like the legs oí kids wií rickets. I can never focus on anything for too long before a herd of ideas rampage in and occupy me. Reflecting on things is not my forte. I collect and use things; thatís how they make sense. This vast, astonishing, landscape with its minimal human contamination becomes less a sanctuary of peace and oneness, than a seam of ideas.
Thereís this discourse about the future oí the planet and global warming. Aboot the environmental damage wreaked by no switchiní off they kettles that keep changiní colour. But we ignore the ever increasing world population outgrowing the food supply.
Maybe itís too terrible to contemplate, so we just talk aboot wind power. But ye know, yir Thomas Robert Malthus said the population is, quote - ďkept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice." Thatís handy. Because up here theyíre oor traditional industries. Misery and vice on every street corner up here in ten pound twists. So, within the Malthusian context of population control maybe we need tae stop lookiní at the drug supplier as a social pariah, and see him as a force for sustainability...
Cars appear. Hondas, Fords, Vauxhalls even Peugeots. I pass a low cottage to one side that has truck trailers and tyres among bits of engine and lorry parts. A big pantechnicon is parked in a lay-by across the road. The purity of the pastoral is slowly being corrupted by manís commercial drive. Beautiful big evergreens flatten out against the sky, high above the other trees. I pass a scattering of those modern, white noddy houses on my right that look as if they have been made from a giant mould. On my left is an amateurís sign telling me the traditional village pub is open all day. A caravan and a trampoline sit abandoned in an empty yard. Away beyond the clusters of low trees and bush I can see a horizon of blue hills. Iím scurrying along between walls of trees when I pass a road sign indicating Glasgow to the right and am totally confused. It should be pointing back where Iíve come from. Glasgowís behind me surely? But I also see the name Kyles of Bute on the sign and now I really feel Iím in another country. There seems to be miles of woods, more trees than Iíve ever seen, then suddenly Iím out of them and the loch is directly in front of me.
This is such a panorama. Itís as if I am seeing it wide screen. To the left the loch runs away towards the unseen sea. A cluster of three or four cedars stand as if theyíre waiting for a bus by the shore. Nearly a mile away on the other side of the loch, long fingers of land sneak down from hills and slouch in the water like sleeping dogs, and bristles of trees trap shadows and sunlight. The colours surprise me. Forests on far hills look blue. Dun and a whole range of browns and yellows warm under a brilliant sky that reflects in the loch in streaks of metallic blues and greys. I can see mountains in the distance and itís impossible to tell how far they are or how high. They look unnatural, as if some stagehand has put them up for a festival. How can you wake up every morning and see something like this and remain normal? Thereís something quite scary about them too. You donít fuck with those hills; it looks like that beauty can kill you. And once more in the whole wide and astonishing vista, there is not a soul to be seen. I could be the last human.
...so this part of Scotland, with its astronomical levels of substance abuse, gang murder and deep fried Mars bars, is in some ways, a model of Malthusian perfection....
Such a dialogue seems inappropriate in a place of such serenity, but if itís abuse itís of use. In this McEden I create the McDante hell that will be my schtick at the University on Saturday. Iím not giving myself time to get scared of it yet. On the comedy route twenty minutes at one of Glasgow Uniís Student Unions may not seem much, but itís a potential leg up from pub rooms of vomit and anti social personality disorders I spend my time backchatting. The Great Escape. Thatís why my head keeps nagging me for material. Deep down Iím shit scared, and some part of my panicking mind is like a secretary bugging me to get my proverbial ordure together, and another part of me is too scared to do it. I favour improv and going with the comedic flow, but I need something special and different for the uni; something that will appeal to half pissed smartarses full of themselves. At the very least I need a structure I can weave around. Iíve been meaning to drum up new stuff for a while anyway, but as usual Iím leaving it to the last minute. Fear lubricates the creative wheels, but whenever the search for new material begins my mind goes absolutely blank, and I think I will never think of anything and am so grateful for being an estate agent. Something always comes to me though, as it is coming to me staring at the bonny banks of Loch Fyne and the blinding flashes of the sun on the wee waves.
Thereís a few houses, couple of pubs, church, a post office, smiddy and museum and a strange loop on the shore, which I take to be some pagan symbol, but is nothing more than a rowan tree that has been trained to grow in the shape of a cartoon keyhole. They must be a wild lot here to do something as crazy as that.
The pubís dark, so I head for a seat outside facing up the loch to where the rest of the Highlands lie. The sunís warm, the lightís softer, past that winter brassiness that de-saturates or blinds everything. Some things look quite bright: the yellows of the reeds or long grass or whatever it is skirting the loch. Itís astonishing what you see if you really look at something. I imagined a loch to be just a grey mass with occasional hints of grimy blue, but it isnít when you really look at it; itís a mass of shades and colours: silver, pewter, brown, navy, battleship grey, black, dingy green, emerald green, deep blue and the occasional fringe of white where the wind riffles the surface up into wee spits of foam, like tiny cuffs of lace.
The road sweeping north along the loch side is thick with that range of trees and rhododendron that bespeaks of other natives, the landed ones. Sure enough through the gaps in the trees are fields that have the flatness that only comes with formal landscaping. The last two hundred yards of the road down to the village turn-off was fringed with a long, stone wall and I wondered if I were in the land of McKnobs. I look through the line of trees and eventually the upper windows of a pale, Georgian house standing well back from the common man reveal themselves, standing as they have stood maybe for three hundred years. The idealised Scotland - green wellies, wild lochs and hills, shotguns, cedars, parkland and a sedate building at the landscapeís heart. As a lapsed fanatic whose politics in the past would have made Lenin look like a Bullingdon Club alumnus, I have to confess to feeling pleased with it as a view from my pub bench. Whatever issues had me rabid in the past and are still useful in fomenting a bit of audience riot in my act, this quiet scene of aristocratic calm imparts a sense of peace - of stability, and as such it has my approval, indeed gratitude. It centres me. Iím obviously growing into a Coalition kinda gal.
After a while of absolutely nothing, I realise I feel relaxed. Something else too. Iím thinking what is it, this strange feeling? I begin to contemplate it, and come to the realisation that this may be it. What I am experiencing at the moment may well be called happiness. The Ďití that weíre always after, the Ďití that we think comes wií the money or the drugs. Simple, fleeting, but definitely here, right now. The afternoon drifting over me and warming me. Itíll be dark and cold soon enough, but at the moment everything feels fine. Everything in the world feels ok. So I immediately feel guilty. To intensify this guilt, I think of dad. Canít have happiness, can we? Your dadís died. You should be ashamed of your nanosecond of happiness; I would thump your selfish ear if I could reach you. Now I feel angry. At what? Iím sitting alone at a bench by an empty road in a beautiful and peaceful landscape having moved from tranquillity and content to seething rage in two ticks of a clock.
A tall, blonde brings me my coffee. Now we are in the realm of the surreal. She is East European and works in the pub. Her beauty sickens me. It has that measured elegance that makes you want to ask them if they think their shit doesnít stink. Everything she does in the walk from the pub to the placing of the coffee in front of me, and the sweep back of the hair that has fallen cutely over one gorgeous blue eye has that grace and ease the foreigner usually comes to Glasgow to lose. But sheís landed in this other Eden beyond Hell. Blue-eyed, slender and with big tits she is everything Iím not and donít have, and is an insult to the stereotype west coast woman with her proud traditions of pasty skinned obesity. Thereís thousands of these buggers arriving, like grey squirrels nudging out the native red. Weíll all be tall, slim and beautiful one day, with an interesting hint of anaemia. I feel Iím witnessing the first moments of a Darwinian turning point. The coffee arrives in a breathy Garbo greeting with a touch of the vernacular about the beauty oí the day and how maybe winter is ending, yeh?
I nod. ďHow long you been here?Ē
ďWhere you fromĒ
ďBucharest. No a nice place, Bucharest.Ē
ďYou been to Glasgow?Ē
ďYes. Glasgowís nice. I like Glasgow.Ē I score Bucharest off the must-visit list. ďYou are frae Glasgow. I can tell bi yir voice and thet.Ē
Iíve never heard Scots spoken with a Rumanian accent. Although she is an incomer in the grand style I assume as someone from the other side of the Clyde that I am an intruder to be tolerated rather than welcomed, even by someone who may have grown up on a Rumanian hot air vent.
ďSo whose is that place then?Ē I nod to the sun-warmed stately home with its mantle of cedars. Itís like a citizenship test, but I also want to know who lives behind those ivy-clad walls, if the lines of an ancient aristocracy still prevail or have been usurped by the narcissus species of bonus-fattened banker. I donít hold out much hope from a Rumanian bargirl who behaves as if thereís camera on her all the time, but she surprises me.
ďIt was the home of Sir Fitzroy Maclean. He was diplomat and war hero and model for James Bond.Ē
ďIs that so?Ē
ďYesĒ she says proudly as if this is her land, which in some way perhaps it is becoming. It certainly isnít mine. ďMany famous people stay thereĒ I could see the landlord knitting the local myths in those long winter evenings when the only thing in the bar is her cleavage. ďPrincess Margaret, Sean Connery, Michael Caine.Ē
Maybe itís Highland myth, and maybe sheís right. Maybe I just resent the uncritical reverence for aristocratic privilege and celebrity that underscores her anecdotes, and the implicit invitation to join her in this deference, and of course the background threat that not to do so would provoke in a small, self conscious place like this. Or maybe I object to sensing that an immigrant might nurture a claim to this beautiful stretch of someone elseís country while I feel such an outsider. Or is it just that sheís such a bonny lass? The good looker to whom all things will come easily despite the bad beginnings; who will always be nodded through at the exclusive door. But thereís something fragile about her. Sheís been hurt somewhere, and maybe this place feels like healing. Maybe sheís escaped something terrible on the streets of Bucharest and canít believe a place like this doesnít mind her too much. No doubt theyíll like her round here. Theyíll have noticed her up at the big house, and maybe the current Maclean or whoever, will slow his Land Rover or Bentley as he passes to exchange a word or two with the Romanian beauty. She will light up wee parts of the day for the locals, and forlorn hopes in the breasts of young male chughters with limited futures. Maybe what irritates me is just that: the beauty that divines you from the rest of the rabble; the luck of beauty, the accident that ensures you will always be invited in, be chosen, be noticed, have seats kept for you, and be given all the chances to lift well clear of whatever dross you keep in your bottom drawer. The Ďwhy noí me?í syndrome. Michael Caine never visited Port Glasgow.
And itís good she can tell me about Sir Fitzroy MacLean. How many Scots could? At the drop of a nationalistic hat we crow over the mighty sons, scientists, inventions and glittering achievements squeezed from our tiny country, but for many up here ignorance is a passion defended to the gates of insanity and death.
We chat. About nothing and everything. Girlie talk. Itís refreshing on this day. Now Iím sitting somewhere all the desperate facts of today want to crowd me and I use the conversation to make them wait. Her presence is a distraction, but as information is exchanged we draw towards a mutual place where the differences seem diminished by the similarities. I learn her mother and two brothers are festering in the poverty of Bucharest, and that she wants to break from that. I learn she has no father. ďMe neitherĒ I say and realise that though I have said that many times as a curse, for the first time I am able to say it as a literal truth and it shocks me. There is a wee moment, tiny and indefinable that glints between us, an unsaid something or other that is understood. She nods as if to acknowledge it, and turns and walks elegantly back to the pub. I watch her. Iím fascinated by peoplesí backs. We never see our own, so we donít manipulate them the way we do our fronts: pulling in our stomachs, sticking out our chests, inclining our heads. Apart from shakiní that ass. Yet backs can tell us a lot about an individual. You canít wear a mask on your back; your back is how you are, vulnerable, unguarded, ungroomed. Or ok. From behind I imagine I see the wee frightened girl ghosting within her elegant beauty. Or maybe that is what Iím feeling in myself - the child part, cutting the beauty from the comparison. I turn away with that thought and keep it close to me. Sitting looking at Sir Fitzroyís sunny trees on the banks of the loch letting it flow through me, thinking this feeling must be one of the feelings of grief; certainly there is some genuine regret on me at the moment, although Iím no so sure itís reserved solely for my father. The place draws it out of me. My father might have seen something like this once and carried it in him and drank because he could never have it again. A likely story. I suspect I have started rehabilitating my father. Perhaps I need to. Perhaps I need to find some warm memory in all the shit to take on with me. We believe what we need to believe. Would Perry see anything in this? Somehow I feel he might. Till the cluckiní got him.
The road back runs due south. Trees whip by between me and Loch Fyne glinting away below. Although Iím watching the time, on a whim I turn into woods by a plywood sign for what I presume is a hidden village, and after a long secluded track come across a row of white and salmon pink cottages staring onto the loch. A couple of boats on trailers stand on a grassy bank in front of the houses. The bank is sheared up against the loch with dykes. A Vauxhall peppered with seagull shit stands by an old upturned rowing boat that is half stripped of its paint. The road peters out where the banking dips onto a small stony beach fringed by rock and tree. The two last cottages recede further back into the woods and break the clean line of shoreline houses. They are reached by a path and smothered by trees, bush and flower. There is absolute quiet.
All the little houses seem empty. Second homes probably, for weekends of fishing, drinking and boating for the bourgeois of Glasgow, the kind of thing I could aspire to in my day job. Again there is no movement and no sign of humanity. But I am under surveillance and this time it is not my paranoid imagination. It is real. I am a stranger and a group of locals is watching me with deep and undisguised suspicion. Wee heads like puppies with big whiskers stare at me from the loch. Seals. Up to their noses in Loch Fyne, keeping an eye on the houses and the interloper.
ďAn estate agent.Ē
ďIs somebody selliní up?Ē
I wave to reassure them Iím off duty. One dives, and the others look at where sheís gone, then back at me as if itís my fault. Their heads are mottled and they donít take their big, black eyes off me as I wander down to the pebbly beach. The water is glassy around them, no a movement on land or liquid, no a ripple from their wee curious heads, no tide washing up on the pebbles. Everythingís absolutely still. Even the trees look asleep. I can smell salt, or maybe itís seaweed? Certainly some smell I canít recognise. Bleached bits of branch lie at odd angles on the stones, looking like strange corpses with white limbs reaching up for mercy, long, sinister fingers scratching the air. Plastic buoys and boats are moulded onto the mirror of the loch or fastened to boulders and iron rings onshore with frayed blue nylon rope hovering over the pebbles like giant, slack guitar strings. Above me the cottages are low and dark. Nothing moves in them, no light shines, no fires burn, no faces peer at me from windows.
I sit on a wee rock thatís desperately hard on my city bum, but put up with it, and stare back at the seals. Even the seals make me feel like an intruder. I have a desire tae apologise to them for wandering into their domain. ďSorry seals. Iíll be gone soon.Ē A cloud shadow moves across the spit of hills on the other side, making its slow, easy way off the land onto the loch, leaving the woods behind gleaming in light.
The house is on the other side of Dunoon, on the A815 towards Tainault and Toward. I kid you not, Toward. Toward what you might ask. Toward Toward you might respond. And beyond Toward is Castle Toward. Beyond Castle Toward is nothing and you have to come back toward Toward. In this neck of the woods all roads lead toward Toward.
I can slip that in somewhere. Itís a knackered joke for locals, but there are students at Glasgow from Clackmannanshire and Clacks have never heard of anything.
And your terrorist. Donít let us miss the opportunity the international terrorist offers. Within the current, global context, a visionary like Malthus might regard yir suicide bomber as a green initiative.
The day is finishing and I have done what I swore I would do one day. Maybe this was the wrong day to do it. On the way back the low sun filling the Kyles of Bute and setting the great mountains of Arran aglow cannae distract me from the moods that darken me alongside the darkening of the day. Now I am approaching the deceit, the task that must be done to sustain the lie and I am feeling the weight of the chore. I want to go straight back to my wee flat and a chicken tikka, and my grief or whatever it is Iím feeling or should be feeling or am failing to feel. What has to be done now is no part of the kidís dream, and any replenishing effects of the day drain away as this next bit gets closer. I get through the town and head towards Toward one eye on the SatNav, the other on the seaward side of the road where the house lies. Eventually I see the back of it, a big white house separated from the road by a stone garden wall and a dense set of trees and high bush. In summer it must be hidden behind leaf and flower and be gorgeous and warm. In the late light of a cloudless March day it stands out sharply, just taking a tinge of yellow from the western sky. With its back to the peninsula it looks as if it wants no part of life up here.
I turn off the main road and approach it gingerly in an irrational fear that Gerry will be waiting for me with my cards, but itís deserted and utterly silent. What else would an empty house be but silent? But there is a special silence in an empty house. Itís like a kind of death. Or maybe Iím just turned onto death today. The reflections of the sea and late sky lie on the big oceanward windows in blocks of dark metallic blue. Framed by the stone arch and the art deco iron gates it is an impressive sight. Bourgeois achievement and taste are subtly woven into the design to display themselves to whatever boat or nuclear sub might pass by on its way up the Firth, and Iím sure thatís part of the deal. The owners here have to be people with a particular view of themselves. I sort out the keys, open the gates and drive the car in.
Empty houses are strange things. Iíve seen them in all shapes, sizes and conditions. You try to get a feel for them. Some are happy, some depressed, some haughty, some cheeky. Fetishism is a noble tool of eternal house price inflation. Sell the indefensible by making the buyer feel a pile of bricks and plaster is a state of constancy and wisdom, a friend who will confer the serenity and beauty that may be absent from the stress of their bourgeois lives. Sell the line that a house will provide the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of happiness and fulfilment. Nan told me of a guy who used to work for the firm who claimed he could never get a feel for place till he had masturbated in its lavvy. Fair enough, but on busy days it must have been a strain. You would think houses were abandoned ponies, listening to some of those property wankers on the TV; I donít take all that property fantasy seriously, but an empty house definitely has its own atmosphere.
The rooms in this house are huge, high and gloomy. Darkness is trapped in its corners, darkness it seems is part of the design, and the Mackintosh flourishes that embellish everywhere look lonely in the dimness. The dramas and grief, worries, perversions, hope and banalities, laughs, slap and tickles acted out under these high ceilings that seem so sober and mature, have gone with the furniture van, but some state of fear and neglect remains, in the corners, in the slightly ajar doors offering a glimpse on more emptiness. What really went on in here? What was the bad stuff that went on in here?
Away from the huge sitting room windows there are small frosted ones with embossed long stemmed stain glass flowers. Theyíre dotted indiscriminately about the walls to admit light in packets of restraint into unexpected places. But for all the beauty of Mackintosh and his disciples I find something depressing in this elegant austerity. The big man himself set out to capture something of the Scottish spirit in his work and I think he did, in so much as the Scottish spirit embraces cold, poverty, isolation and darkness. Thereís nothing happy in Mackintoshís work - the guy died of alcoholism and tongue cancer with not a pot to piss in - and this house, inlaid with his flourishes, in its great cavernous rooms definitely captures the melancholy beauty of a man sitting in a garden with a glass of whisky to kill the pain, depending on the kindness of strangers in the last months of his life. Typically, like a lot of great artists he died broke, and left behind a tradition that can only be afforded by those who probably would have preferred him to use the tradesmanís entrance.
A house confines space. Here theyíve gone for big cubes of nothing. Nowhereís cramped, not the loos, the kitchen; you could have a party in the cupboard under the stairs. I climb to the very top, past open doors and big rooms with carved roofs, till I reach a bedroom under the eaves. A window spreads its wide stare south and east. Stain glass roses frame the edges and tangle inwards in twists of bereavement. The Clyde and the Atlantic merge outside in a dark, motionless expanse of blue black. Away to the southwest the virile mountains of Arran jut their purple mountain majesty into the fading light. To the east, orange streetlight begins to contaminate the sky above the necklace of towns that string out to Glasgow and constitute the West of Scotland urban problem. The evening invades the room and gathers about me. Pinpricks of light from indiscernible windows and buildings across the water grow as the daylight sinks. Lives are struggling on and the working dayís coming to an end under unseen lampshades and fluorescent tubes. Then suddenly we have one of those wee west coast wonders. The light changes and dips everything into a dark, arterial glow. Itís weird and sudden, like Hell opening its furnaces. Iíve seen these strange twilights as a child, where the sky burns crimson and suffuses faces, tenements, and derelict ice cream vans with an eerie light. It seeps into every nook and cranny, kitchen cupboard and tobacco tin as if atoms of light are hot and glowing. Suddenly buildings I couldnít see away across the Firth are visible. Walls glow; cars are burnished up, yellow lights turn pink; I look at my hands and theyíre red, my clothes red. Iím part of this ghostly light stretching across the water thatís probably infusing my motherís bottle ridden flat with its spectral beauty. Standing in this expensive house with its grand design and gardens, itís driveway and spectacular views in this beautiful part of the country, I realise Iím looking back at what I come from. Thatís the spectacular view. Dadís decomposing over there and Perryís taking the daft route to death. I got away from those beginnings for a while today, but the road looped me back to this view. I suppose from these glowing red shadows I see the view that will always be waiting for me, no matter where I travel. Across there is a manís body to which I am linked for better or worse no matter how much clear water I put between us. I am no more rid of him now than I was yesterday when he was technically alive. I find tears are slipping down my cheeks. Staring from the dark of a Mackintosh room at the day fading on the strip where I endured a childhood. And must be grieving it because my face is wet. But I donít feel it. Just the tears coming out. Doing it for me. For the might-have-been that wasnít. Or whatever. I donít know. Iím no sure. Maybe Iíll know one day. Maybe Iíll never know.
I stand till the fiery light fades as suddenly as it arrived, and the day just floods away from me. It feels as if everythingís over.
I wander down beautiful dark staircases, and out into the twilight, close the big, carved door and pull the huge hand made gates with their black iron lilies and thistles till they shut with a mighty clang. I lock them. The face of the house catches the last light and glows against the dark sky. Soon it will be invisible in the night.
They can keep it. I wouldnít want it.
I sometimes think of that Rumanian girl and wonder how she is. A thousand miles from Bucharest. I was ten miles across the water. How far do you need to go?
Jesus Iím high, but no a drug inside me. High on the reception and high on the hill above the city where the university swanks its six hundred years of Scottish high-mindedness wií its long stone faÁade and big, rounded towers and self-importance. Behind its orange floodlights it burns over the city at night like an old dominie telling the haves to be grateful and the have-nots tae be humble. I stand letting them blind me the way the lights put a gauze between me and my audience inside. But a gauze I penetrated in style if I may say so myself. Not brilliant, not tumultuous, but pretty fuckiní amazing for me. They liked me. They took to me. I nearly feel like a star student, like the place with all its history and scholarship views me as one of its own. Perry, your pipe can give you nothing like this. This is the real hit, the thing weíre all looking for.
I need to go to the funeral, to make some private closure, but also to make up a wee bit for using his death as my material. A thanks maybe. I hate your guts dad, but you gave me the grift tonight and I thank you for it.
Actually, I didnít hate you. Donít hate you. Thatís the queer thing. Nor did Perry. Does Perry. By God you gave us cause to, but we didnít. Donít. We should. Thatís the real fuckiní sadness. You gave us nothing all your life and leave us loss now youíve died. You shafted us in life and death. This is my prayer to you. You make me angry but.. Thatís as good as it can get Da.
Iím no gettingí into the sadness stuff. That has no comic potential whatever. I want to stay among the laughs and applause tonight. I donít want grief raininí on my parade, because this is my parade tonight dad and I fuckiní slayed them - well, got them - and they were cheering at the end. Cheering dad. For your pain in the arse wee kid that you thought would come to nothing. Your paradeís on Monday. Iíll be there, but theyíll no be cheering at that.
I ring Perry.
ďThis phone cannot be connected at the moment. Please call back later.Ē
Heís used up the credit I bought him and added nothing on. Why am I shocked? What did I expect? Itís no as if his diary is full of freelance appointments. How often do you need to phone a dealer? Iím back to earth and sick with it. The high of the gig has spun me a candyfloss fairy tale. Perry has blown it to pieces. The wee bastard.
I step through the row of floodlights. The university is brightly lit behind me, but Iíll be a silhouette against it now, back in darkness. I can see the city spreading below me as a big dirty canvas of light and shadow; a pollution of sodium glows, street, window and car lamps. Buses float like chords of light. Away to my left over the Kelvin the huge houses of Park Terrace and Park Circus loom their Glaswegian grandeur up into the orange glow. The city at night: rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Another spectacular view. I suddenly feel tired of spectacular views.
I says, ďWhat he die oí?Ē
He says, ďBad oyster.Ē
Cue: laughter swells.
I says ĎNo wayí.Ē
Pause. Let it arc, then...
A bad Port Glasgow oyster? No way!!Ē