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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Tiny dancers

"You can't have two robins on your bird-table," Rachel assures me. "They're territorial birds. If you had two robins in your garden, never mind on a small piece of wood together, they'd be ripping each other's feathers out."

"Let me get this right," I say. "You're 500 miles away on the end of the phone and I'm looking out my back window at a bird-table six feet away. But you know better than me what's on it?"

"Sounds like it," she says. "Could one of them be a chaffinch?"

"No," I tell her. "One of them couldn't be a chaffinch. It's two robins side by side, happily pecking the bread I put out for them."

"Maybe one of them's a bullfinch," she says. "They have red breasts too. Easy mistake to make."

If Rachel has a fault - and I'm not saying she has - it's over-reliance on her own brain at the expense of mine. Normally it's not a problem. But when she doubts the evidence of my senses it's mildly irritating.

"No!" I tell her. "One of them couldn't be a bloody bullfinch. I know what they look like. This is two robins. Get over it."

The line goes quiet, then "Aha!" she cries. "I've got it. Take another look at your robins. I'll bet they're mincing about with their hands on their hips."


"They're gay," she tells me. " You've got gay robins. They've set up home together in your garden."

"Bollocks," I say. "There's no such thing as gay robins."

"Shows what you know, pal," she says. "You get homosexual behaviour in loads of animals - swans, penguins, mallards, vultures, dolphins, apes, lions, lizards, sheep, goats. In one study, over 90% of giraffe mounting was male on male."

"If I had giraffes on my bird-table I'd have noticed," I say. "I have robins. And they're not gay."

"You're in denial, son, maybe even homoerithacophobic. Take it from me - if you have two male robins on your bird-table they're gay."

I ponder this while watching my birds surreptitiously through the back window. They seem straight to me. "Is there some way to tell for sure?" I ask her.

"Other than catching them in the act, only one way I know," Rachel says.

"What's that?"

"Look out an old Elton John song, play it loud and open the window. If your robins start bopping on the birdtable, they're as gay as pink pants."

Saturday, 23 February 2013


Al takes global warming personally. So his house is as warm and welcoming as the dark side of the moon. Not that there is a dark side of the moon, despite the over-hyped Floyd album, but you get the drift. Arctic, Baltic, bloody freezing.

"Do you ever heat this place?" I ask over breakfast, the morning after we'd chatted in the Bon Accord and he gave me a bed for the night.

"Of course," he says. "My central heating comes on between December and February every year."

"So that's like ... January?"

"Pretty much," he says.

"You heat the house one month out of twelve? Why don't you freeze the rest of the year, the way I'm freezing now?"

"You're not freezing," he says. "You're slightly below the temperature your pampered adult self has got used to. You've gone soft from a surfeit of cocoa, women and central heating, You must have been tougher as a boy."

"I wasn't," I tell him. "I was harassed by hypothermia. We had one coal fire in the living-room. The rest of the house was shrouded in ice. You took a sledge and huskies to get to the bathroom. My dad stepped into the hall one winter and froze with his hand out reaching for a book. We used him as a coatstand till he thawed out in spring."

Al puts a sizzling plate of hash browns, beans, tomatoes, scrambled eggs and vegetarian sausages in front of me, accompanied by coffee in a white mug with black lettering that says: "The wind moans, like a long wail from some despairing soul shut out in the awful storm."

"Guy that wrote that died of apoplexy brought on by overwork," I tell him.

"Serves him right," he says. "It's a present from my mum. She said it reminded her of me. How's the breakfast?"

"Hot, huge and unexpected," I say. "Like the climate."

"It's not funny," he says, waving a forkful of food at me. "The planet's screwed and you're sat scornfully scoffing sausages. If we all turned our heating down, civilisation might survive."

"But we won't," I tell him. "It's the Tragedy of the Commons. Land owned by all gets ruined by a few. Human nature. So you might as well turn your heating up before frostbite eliminates my extremities. It's pointless. It's tokenism."

He bites half the greasy brown cylinder on his fork and points the other half at me. "Why are you eating fake sausages full of fluff and grass instead of a man's meal like this?" he asks me. "It's pointless. It's tokenism."

He lays his fork on the plate, stands up, loosens his belt and drops his trousers and I start back in sudden fear. 

Long, thick and blue, it stretches almost to his ankles. I've never seen anything like it. "My God," I say. "What's that?"

"Thermal underwear," he tells me. "It's the future."

Wednesday, 20 February 2013


"See that bicycle wheel behind you," my son says, as we share a companionable coffee in the kitchen, the only space in his new flat not already silted up by art in progress or the tools he makes it with.

"I do," I tell him. "A fine-looking wheel, if incongruous in a kitchen. Is it concept art?"

"No, it's a bicycle wheel."

"It's just that I once saw a teaspoon painted pink in a picture frame," I tell him. "I was told that art is whatever an artist says is art."

He sips from his mug and makes a little moue. "What do you think of this stuff?" he asks, reaching for the packet and reading aloud: "'Brimming with Latin spirit, this is the perfect convivial coffee.'"

He tosses it on the table, spilling dark beans on the cream surface. "What does that mean?" he demands. "It's a daft phrase from a bad writer. 'Brimming with Latin spirit' my arse. It's just coffee."

"But a perfectly pleasant coffee," I tell him. "Give the guy a break. Words in the mind of a writer are like objects in an artist's hands."

He looks at me suspiciously. "Did you write it?" he asks. "Have you been bought by the marketing moguls?"

"Not yet," I tell him. "But I've written similar stuff. Words have sounds, sense and clouds of connotation. Good writers use all those. It's not just about meaning. What if I asked for the meaning of those decaying apples inside coffee-stirrer scaffolding you've got in the lounge?"

He flashes the smile that's warmed me since I first saw it thirty years ago. "I'd say it shows that creation and decay are complementary aspects of a single essence," he tells me. "But I'd know that's postmodern at best and probably bollocks. Art is process and ambiguity, not products and precise meaning."

"So is writing," I say. "Just not so much.

"But there has to be a core of connection," he insists. "Words need a hard wire to earth or those fluffy clouds will float them away."

"Unlike that bicycle wheel," I say.

"Exactly," he says. "That's about as grounded as you get. But it also carries a modicum of metaphorical meaning."

I drain the dregs, place the mug on the table and stand up ready to go. "Which is what?" I ask. "Without spokes there is no centre? Rubber makes the world go round? Enlighten me, oh wise one."

"Choose your own cheesy cliché," he tells me. "For me it's circles. My mum sends me five texts at three in the morning complaining I never talk to her. Which is annoying, so I don't answer. So she sends me five more texts, which is annoying so ... Everything moves in circles."

"Except rockets, arrows, bullets, planes, trains, automobiles, pawns, knights and bishops." I say, as he collects our coffee mugs and places them in the stainless-steel sink.

"Except those," he agrees, flashing the self-deprecating smile again. "But next time around they probably will."

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Scary story

"What's the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?" Al asks, as we exit the cinema, having watched two hours of tedious chainsaw schlock.

"That's hard," I say. "Do you mean frightening at the time or frightening later, when you grasp the enormity of what you've done?"

"Oh, either. Let's not get too analytic."

"Well, there was that time we were coming back from the pub and decided to walk along the parapet of the viaduct. You remember?"

"Yeah," he says. "But it was too easy, so John Gibson suggested hopping and we did that for a while and he thought it was still too easy. So we tried hopping backwards and you fell off."

"I did. But on the side with the three foot drop, not the fifty foot. Which is why I'm here today."

"So that was frightening?" Al asks.

"Not at the time. You're armour-plated at that age. But it scares me now. We could have died."

"We didn't," he says. "Will I tell you what's scarier than chainsaws or viaducts?"

He pushes open the door to the Bon Accord and the iconic image on the wall of Baxter and Bremner piques my nostalgia. I order two pints, while he keeps me waiting for the punchline, but I know what's coming.

"Women," he says, lifting his beer and heading for the table in the corner, below the bookshelves. "Women are scary."

"Nah," I say, when we're sat side by side, surveying the bar. "They're not scary. They're just different. You have to not talk to them like guys." 

"I know what not to do with them," Al says. "Pretty much everything I've done with them my whole life. What I don't know is what to do with them."

"You got to get back in the game," I tell him. "You won't learn anything about women by talking to men."

"Except you?" he says.

"Except me," I agree, taking a long pull of my pint. "You should ask my sister out. She likes you."

"Way too nice," he tells me. "I was thinking I'd start at the easy end and work up."

I glance at the wall-poster of Jim and Billy, fresh-faced, young and confident. Everything Al isn't. "Lot of guys make that mistake," I tell him. "Then end up settling for a woman who makes them miserable. Start at the top and work down would be my advice."

"You'd get a load of rejection that way," he says. "Rejection is scary."

"I'll tell you what's scary," says an old guy at the next table, wearing woolly gloves with no fingertips, who's clearly been earwigging. 

He lowers his voice to a whisper. "You live alone. You wake at three in the morning. It's pitch dark and silent, except for the tick of the bedside clock and the faint rustle of winter wind in the trees." 

He pauses. "Then somebody knocks on your bedroom door," he says and starts nodding his head. 

Al and I digest this in silence. Both of us live alone.

"You know that spare room in your house?" I say.

Al shudders and grabs his beer. "It's yours for the night," he says.

Monday, 11 February 2013


I pointedly don't look at her and she doesn't look at me, as we drive past the biggest windfarm in Britain. But we both know what one of us is trying hard not to say.

That's the thing about old friends. They can tell when to shut up. Sometimes.

"I make it two," I say.

"I knew it!" says Rachel, who is smart, scientific and wears blue jeans. "You just couldn't do it, could you? The sun's shining. The birds are singing. We're heading to what should have been a nice lunch. And then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like 'I make it two'.

"And you can't even count," she adds. "I can see at least a dozen without turning my head."

"Impressive," I tell her. "Twelve windmills whirling in the breeze from a total of 200 sprouting from every square metre, as far as the eye can see. Three hundred million quid to build a windfarm that generates enough electricity to soft-boil a quail's egg."

"They are not windmills," she says, her hands reaching yearningly for my neck. "They're wind turbines. A windmill makes flour. These things make electricity."

"Or rather they don't," I say. "Because the wind's not the right speed. Or they're pointing in the wrong direction. Or they just can't be arsed. So they stand there idly in the sunshine, stark monuments to human stupidity and commercial greed, arrayed in redundant rows, polluting the landscape and killing the birds. I hate them."

"I'd never have known," she says. "You only mention it every time we drive this road."

True enough, I reflect, as we speed on in silence and I wonder how to retrieve the companionable feeling we'd been enjoying since emerging from a meeting at which we'd done a presentational Torvill and Dean that got us the job.

"I'm sorry," I try.

More silence. I glance sideways. Lips pressed, arms folded.

"What are you sorry for?" she says eventually.

"Being right" won't work. "Upsetting you" is patronising. "Calling them windmills," I say.

"That's it?" she says.

"Well no. I'm sorry I ruined the mood. I was enjoying it too. Can we get it back?"

"It'll cost you."

"How much?"

"You have to promise to say absolutely nothing about the next four things that annoy you."

"What if they all come at once?" I plead. "What if we pass a coachload of liberal democrats driven by Noel Edmonds that has furry dice dangling from the mirror and a picture of Tony Blair in the back window?"

"In that case you can shout at it," she says. "But only for three seconds."

"You drive a hard bargain," I tell her. "It's a deal."

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Wife swapping

"The trouble with wife-swapping," Al informs me over lunch in the Burnbrae Hotel, "is that you have to take one back."

He lifts his pint, takes a long pull, then sits back in his chair looking deeply satisfied, whether by the beer, the one-liner or life in general, it's hard to tell. Maybe all three.

"You must have been tempted to get married sometime in your life," I say. "Maybe when you were young and pretty?"

"You saying I'm old and ugly?" he asks.

I study him, taking in the bald head, shaved close for added shine, the friendly face and the small pot belly he's acquired since giving up smoking three months ago. "How can I put this tactfully?" I say.  

"Don't try," he says. "You're useless at it."

"Well see that old guy at the bar, face like a bag of spanners?"

He twists around to get a better look. "I see him," he says.

"I wouldn't climb over him to get to you," I tell him.

Al barely acknowledges the insult and looks instead around the interior of the pub, gloomy even on the brightest of days, seemingly searching for someone. "Ah, there she is," he says. "You see that lovely blonde waitress over there?"

Tall, slim, willowy, dressed in black, moving athletically. "I see her," I say.

"Well I used to be engaged to a woman just like her," he says. 

I take a closer look, turn back to study Al and try to hold down a sceptical eyebrow.

"Hard to believe, I know, when you look at the human flotsam I've become," he says. "But it's true."

"What happened?" I ask.

"Story as old as time. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl loves him back. Girl gets abducted by aliens. Boy never gets over it. Goes bald, drinks beer. The end."

"That's a sad story," I tell him. "Is any part of it true?"

"All of it. Except the aliens. It was actually the Bradford and Bingley Building Society. She got offered a job down in Yorkshire. She went. I stayed." 

I catch a flicker in his eyes and look away. "You ever hear from her again?" I ask.

"Yeah once," he says. "Got a message on my answer-machine asking if I needed home insurance. I didn't."

The willowy waitress approaches our table and asks if everything is all right for us. Al tells her it is and meets her eye.

She touches his shoulder, then turns and walks away.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Ball game

Drove past a roadside sign the other day that reminded me how I got started writing for a living. "It's cancer that should be scared now," the sign read and I couldn't help thinking of a piece on testicular cancer I wrote 15 years ago and didn't get published.

"Cancer is serious," my writing tutor assured me. "It is not a suitable subject for humour."

"Well I think it is, my po-faced pedagogue," I told him. "Those are precisely the subjects we should be laughing at." 

Or I would have done if I'd had the nerve. If we laugh only at trivial aspects  of life, it'll be like an evening with Michael McIntyre that lasts 70 years.

"Whole point of humour is to raise your spirits," I say later to Susan. "So you can be funny about anything - death, disease, divorce, religion, suspicious lumps on your balls you don't think were there before but aren't sure as it's a while since you felt them."

"For once I agree with you," she says.

"So would you like the job?" I ask.

"What job?" she says.

"Making me laugh and feeling my testicles once a month for little lumps that shouldn't be there. Ideally not at the same time."

"What do I get out of it?" she says.

"The pleasure of seeing me happy, relaxed and free from fear."

"I'd rather have ten quid a time."

"That's five quid a testicle. Seems steep."

"You can't put a price on peace of mind," she tells me. "It's my best offer. If you don't like it do it yourself."

"I can't," I admit. "It makes me squeamish. I get this stringy stuff between my finger and thumb that feels like frog spawn. The idea of frog spawn in my scrotum makes me sick."

"What a wuss," Susan says. "I might be talking myself out of a job here, but you needn't worry about that. It's your epididymis."

"My whaty whatymis?"

"Your epididymis. It's normal. You've got two. They transport sperm from the testicles on their first faltering steps into the big wide world."

"I always wondered how that happened," I say. "Well that's a weight off my mind. I can do the job myself now, thanks. I don't need you."

"You sure?" she says.

"What haven't you told me?"

"Nothing," she says and starts whistling, a sure sign that she's lying.

"Let me have it," I say and she does.

"Well the epididymis is long."

"How long?"

"If you ran out of string to wrap your Christmas parcels, you'd have more than enough in your scrotum."

"So what we talking about - couple of feet? I don't do many presents."

"Try twenty."

"Twenty feet!"

"Each. Forty feet in all."

"That's horrible. I can't touch that. I'd rather have the frog spawn," I say, reaching into my back pocket and pulling out a twenty pound note. "Here's two months in advance."

"That'll do nicely," she says, shoving the note down her blouse. "Do you want extras?"

"Now you're talking," I say. "What are your rates?"

"For another fiver," she says, "I'll warm my hands first."


My son is unhappy with the location I've chosen for lunch, an ancient establishment on Sauchiehall Street that has sweet-scented, glass-fronted cakes downstairs and an old fashioned restaurant up above, where black-clad waitresses glide to and fro, like ghosts from an earlier age.

Well maybe not glide. "Last time we were here the woman who served us was 93, looked like Julie Walters in the Two Soups sketch and got our order all wrong," he reminds me.

"Poor soul," my sister, always quick to sympathise, chides him gently. "She was doing her best. You'll be old one day yourself."

"No doubt," he tells her. "But I won't wear a dress three sizes too small, move at two miles an hour and bring milky tea to people who order black coffee. Why are we here again?"

I can see clearly now that this isn't one of his bright, sunshiny days. So I tread carefully. "Let's sit down and you can tell us what you've been doing at Art College," I say.

He grunts but takes a seat at the table the nonagenarian leads us to, and his aunt asks how he's getting on. The charming smile reserved for non-parents flashes in her direction, and he tells her the portfolio he's been working on for months has gained him an interview for entry to the degree course.

"Just me and one other guy in the class," he says, acting casual.

"That's fantastic," she says, kissing him on the cheek. I give him an equally delighted but more manly punch on the arm and ask when he got the news. "Couple of days ago," he says.
"What! Why didn't you tell me then?"

"Never thought."

You can't strangle a son in a restaurant, of course, but it's tempting at times. "Your mum and I have known you were an artist since before you could walk, and have been trying to get you into Art College for half your life. You're on the verge now and you didn't think to tell us?"

"See that's the thing," he says. "You pushed me too hard. If the two of you had left me alone I'd have got here years ago. Telling me it's what I should do made me decide I wasn't going to do it."

I look at the little bleeder in disbelief. "So why are you doing it now?"

"Because it's my choice now," he says, snapping the menu down on the table as the waitress ambles arthritically up to us. "Would you like soup of the day?" she asks.

 "What's the chance of getting any, if I say 'yes'?" he asks her. 

"Fifty-fifty," she tells him.

"Go for it," he says.