"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.