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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Wisdom tooth

My sister sometimes overdoes the empathy. "He comes from Greece and you know the problems they're having," she tells me over a fried egg breakfast in her home. "He probably sends money back every month to his mum and dad and their dog."

"That's hardly your problem Helen,"  I tell her, trying to sound like the sensible elder brother I should have been. "He's your dentist not your responsibility."

"I feel sorry for him," she says. "I don't think he's a great dentist. He's clumsy. He drops things. He bumps into people. And his equipment. And the walls."

I stare at her and shake my head.

"I know. I know," she says. "He's a nice guy though. Got this lovely accent."

"Which he uses to say 'Oops'?" I suggest. "And 'Pardon me for stabbing you in the throat, madam.'"

"Also I don't think he's done much root canal work and that's what I'm booked in for tomorrow."

I shake my head and chew my egg roll, one of those you pop in the oven for a few minutes and it comes out warm and doughy. "This is lovely," I tell her. "You buy fried eggs in a café they're half raw and run down your chin. These are firm but not crisp. Perfect."

"You think I'm nuts." she says. "Don't you?"

"Because you're having a dyspraxic dentist do root canal work on the only teeth you'll ever have?" I say. "Nah.

"What is root canal, anyway?" I ask her. "People talk about it, but it means nothing to me."

"It's the part of a tooth's root that carries nerves and blood vessels," she says. "The dentist drills down, scrapes all that out with little files because it's infected and replaces it with artificial stuff. The tooth's dead then but gives you no pain. He was very good at explaining it to me."

"In his lovely Greek accent?"


"While bumping into things?"

"He smacked himself in the eye with the back of his hand while doing the scraping action."

I shake my head.

"I know. I know," she says. "But he's NHS and it's so hard to get one these days. The job would cost £1000 if I went private."

"But you would have the use of your face afterwards," I point out. "Your jugular would be unsevered and you wouldn't have a scalpel sticking out your forehead."

"Once he's working on your teeth he seems less clumsy," she says.

"How can you tell? Your head's numb. He's probably dropping drills, tweezers and cups of tea into your mouth and you can't feel it. I bet they're still there. Let me look."

She tops my mug up with fresh coffee and ignores me. "It's good service here," I tell her. "Reasonable prices too. I'll recommend you to my friends."

"Don't you dare," she says. "I've met your friends."

"You like Al," I say.

"I want to mother him," she says. "There's a sadness in his eyes. You think I'm mad, don't you?"

"Nah, I want to mother him too."

"I mean about my dentist."

I sip the coffee. Piping hot, just how I like it. "If we had a who's the most sensible person in this room contest, Helen, you'd lose. That's how far you've come from any semblance of sanity."

"I know. I know," she says. "What do you think I should do?"

"Dump him. Get a better dentist."

"What about his mum and dad?"

"He's an orphan."

"What about his dog?"

"It's being looked after by his best friend on an orange farm in Attica."

"Will it upset him if he loses me?

"He's your dentist Helen, not your lover."

"I'll do it. You've got me all fired up. I'll do it," she says, banging her egg roll on the table and making the cat jump. 

"Right after I keep this appointment tomorrow," she says.

I shake my head.

"I know. I know," she says.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Fast hands

Ringo Starr at Friendly Encounters

You have to be careful with North Americans. Just because they look like somebody from your street doesn't mean they think the same. It's easy to offend.

So when Ryan, a mature student Susan's niece has brought home for the holidays, tells me Ringo was useless - a story I've heard a hundred times - my sensitivity to cultural difference means I treat this Canadian character gently. 

"You cannot be serious," I say.

A look of disapproval flits across his face, before he delivers the well-worn support for his nonsense. "You know what John said, when asked if Ringo was the best drummer in the world?" he says.

"Of course: 'He isn't even the best drummer in the Beatles.'" 

"There you are then," he says, throwing a complacent leg over the arm of his chair and getting a disapproving look from Susan.

"You're failing to appreciate something quite important though," I tell him.

"What's that?" he asks.

"John was a dick."

"Enough about drumming," Susan says, giving me the look. "Everyone to the table."
I bide my time during the starter, trying to judge a safe moment to resume. He gets in first, lowering his voice to ensure she's just out of earshot, bound for the kitchen. "If the bass player was the best drummer in the Beatles it doesn't say much for Ringo," he says.

"He wasn't," I tell him. "Paul was good. He could play anything - guitar, drums, piano, fiddle, sax, spoons, washboard. But listen to Back in the USSR with Paul on drums. Then try Ringo on Rain or his lovely shuffle groove on Tell Me Why.

"Ringo was a musical drummer. He played the song. He wasn't flashy. He was creative, distinctive, and one of the most influential rock drummers who ever lived. Yet here you sit in my living-room with a faceful of my prawns, telling me he's useless."

"Whose prawns?" Susan demands, having sneaked up behind me. "Whose living-room?"

"Technically yours," I admit.

"Didn't I tell you to be nice to our guests," she says.

"But he was being nasty to Ringo."
She puts her arm round my shoulder and pulls me close. "Shove distinctly autistic Douglas back in his box," she says. "Then bring out sophisticated Doug and engage our guests in friendly conversation."

She squeezes my shoulder and departs to bring in the main course, and I glance at Ryan, who looks expectant. "So you're from Canada," I say.

"I am," he says.

"Home of Keanu Reaves, Leonard Cohen and Pamela Anderson," I say.

"So I believe," he says.

"Are you enjoying Scotland?" I ask.

"Yes," he says.

I feel like a tennis player whacking bouncy balls over the net and getting wet socks lobbed back at me. The temptation to return to Ringo is strong. No sign of main course or Susan yet, so I risk it. "Who is your favourite drummer then?"

"Buddy Rich," he says.

"Ha! I knew it. All fast hands, flashy solos and technical virtuosity."

He reaches for the decanter to pour some more of the Merlot. "Let me get this right," he says, displaying an unexpectedly Old World gift for sarcasm. "Your theory is that being able to play your instrument well is a handicap to a musician?"

"I fancied emigrating to Canada when I was young," I tell him.

"Really?" he says, as Susan returns bearing a large roast on a platter in both hands. "Canada's loss. What changed your mind?"

"I met some Canadians," I say, and Susan somehow slaps me on the back of the head.

Monday, 18 March 2013


Never at his chattiest within an hour of waking, my son gives my question short shrift. "It's art. It's not supposed to have any meaning."

"If it hasn't any meaning, it's meaningless," I say.

"So?" he says, staring through the windscreen. 

I hesitate, knowing how questions bug him before the caffeine kicks in. "Well what's the point of something that's meaningless?" 

He turns to look at me now, not quite irritated yet. "What's the point of a tree?" he says. "Do you know what I mean? What's the point of a nice sky?"

"So it's about beauty then? I ask and answer it myself. "It can't be. A lot of art isn't beautiful. So what is it?"

"I don't know," he says, exasperated now. "I just make the shit." 

I laugh. "You're going to have to do better than that if somebody interviews you."

"Well yeah," he agrees. "You get your bollocks worked out before you talk to people. About 20% of this course, if I get in, is going to be ...."



"It will be interesting though," I suggest.

He stretches and yawns widely. "I guess. But some people believe too much in the bollocks. If you make art you're an artist and what you make is art. That's all there is to it."

"It's a bit tautologous," I say.

"Nothing wrong with a good tautology," he says, as his aunt pulls up, gets out of her car and walks towards us, her face well-wreathed in wool. 

Some kind of neuralgia makes Helen suffer seriously in the cold, so she wore a balaclava for a while. But too many pulls by the police persuaded her to ditch it and buy scarves. Not nearly as cosy, she tells me, but you get arrested much less.
"My satnav went quiet suddenly and I could only hear it by putting my ear up close," she says. "Then I couldn't see where I was going and got lost. Are you fed up waiting?"

 "We're fine," I tell her. "We've been analysing art."

"I don't think you can analyse art," she says, as she climbs into the back seat and I pull away from the kerb. 

"Ha!" my son says. "That's what I've been trying to tell him, but he never listens, d'you know what I mean?"

"I certainly do," she says.

"Have you any idea how often you say 'd'you know what I mean?'" I say, aiming to divert them from the well-worn topic of my deficiencies.

"No, but it's a handy phrase," he says. "Turn right here and we'll park in the multi-storey, then walk to the exhibition.

"I'll use it if I get half way through a sentence and have no idea what I'm talking about," he continues. "Or if I just can't be arsed finishing it. Nine times out of ten, the person you're talking to will go, 'I do - I know exactly what you mean.'

"It's a great way to get a reputation as a deep thinker."

"Let me get this straight," I say, pulling into a parking bay on the ground floor. "Not only does your art not mean anything, but very often you don't mean anything either?"

"Spot on," he says. "Do you think you do?"

Monday, 11 March 2013

Balanced diet

"Have you noticed there's more mist on the moors these days?" my son asks, as we shop in Tesco's deserted aisles, late at night.

"I have," I say. "I blame climate change."

"I blame zombies," he says, grabbing two packs of broccoli and tossing them in the trolley.  "Good stuff that," he says. "Bright, fresh and green. You can feel it zapping you with vitamins as you eat it."

"Zombies?" I say.


"You blame zombies for the mists on the moors?"

"Sure," he says. "They hide inside it till you wander along, then jump out and eat your brains."

"Bastards," I say.

"Yeah," he says.

We leave the vegetables behind and head towards the centre of the store, sidestepping a surly member of staff. "Do you always shop here?" I ask. "I used to but the shelf-stackers are rude. They shove you aside and never apologise."

"I've noticed that," he says. "But it's big and it's handy for me. Now what else do I need? I've got broccoli, tomatoes, cheese and chick peas. That's all I live on these days. You're a vegetarian too. What do you eat?"

"Pasta, beans, salad."

"Doesn't sound like a balanced diet," he says. "You sure being veggie is good for you?"

"Been one for 40 years," I say, and he looks me up and down but makes no comment. The lighting in the store has started to flicker.

"Ten years for me," he says. "But I'm not convinced it's healthy."

"You look well on it," I say. "Even if I don't."

"That's the training. But it must be easier for a body to make muscles and organs if that's what you're putting into it. Stands to reason."

"Not necessarily. It's biochemistry. It's complicated."

"But how can you build biceps out of macaroni and lettuce leaves?" he says. "I wouldn't know where to start if I was a human metabolism."

"Just as well you're not then," I say.

The faulty lighting has settled now into a slow oscillation, bright to gloomy and back again, accompanied by an electrical buzz that peaks in the darkness. The rows of red flesh in the meat aisle look painless and sterile in their tight cellophane wrappers. It's no place for veggies so we push on, headed for the drinks aisle.

"On that logic you should eat human flesh all the time," I say. "And zombies would be the healthiest people around."

"If they weren't dead," he says, stopping abruptly and looking along the length of the aisle. "See if I was a zombie, I wouldn't be out on those cold, hard moors at night. I'd be hanging around places like this, picking off sad people like us."

A vaguely human shape comes shambling towards us. "Could you tell the difference between a zombie and a shelf-stacker in this light?" I ask my son anxiously.

"One moves slow, smells bad and treats you rough," he says. "The other's a zombie."

"Twats," the stacker says and walks on.

Sunday, 10 March 2013


I've heard it's a guy thing, an ancient instinct. One of those well-worn pathways in our nervous systems, like sheep tracks on heather hillsides.

Whatever it is, I'm unhappy seated in a public space with my back to the door. Wild Bill Hickok did it once and got shot dead by a buffalo-hunter.

So maybe I've just watched too many cowboy films. I certainly don't expect to get shot dead in the Allan Water Café, run for 100 years by four generations of the Bechelli family. But I also don't want my ex-wife sneaking up behind me while I'm waiting for her there. 

She is unlikely to put a pistol to my head, shout "Damn you, take that!" then blow my brains out, as Wild Bill's assassin did to him. Most unlikely. Five percent chance at most.

All the same, I'd rather have her in front of me, where I can see what she's doing. And has in her hands.

But Bechelli's is a popular place, what with tourist traffic and local ladies who lunch - two of whom are facing me now, across the white-topped table, in the seats I'd much rather have. So I keep turning around to watch the door. 

And still she manages somehow to come up on my blind side, say "Hello Douglas" in that voice, and make me jump ten feet in the air.

"Do you have buffalo-hunters among your ancestors?" I ask, when she's seated and my heart-rate has slowed.

"What are you talking about?" she says. "Get me a latte and a 99. The ice-cream here is fantastic." 

"Hello Sam, it's nice to see you again," I say. "You're looking well."

"Yeah, yeah," she says. "I'm short of time and we need to talk about young Douglas."

"Who?" I say.

"Your son," she says. "Think back. You'll remember him."

"Of course I remember him. I saw him yesterday. I just didn't know that's why you wanted to see me."

"Did you imagine I had a sudden desire for your body that I wanted to satisfy on top of a well-worn café table?"

Wouldn't that be stupid, I think, turning away so she can't see my eyes. "I'll get the coffee."

"And the 99," she says.

And the 99. Though that's the easy part, I realise when I reach the ice-cream counter, survey the multi-coloured montage, and memory serves me as well as it always does. I toss a mental coin. "A chocolate ripple and a maple and walnut 99," I tell the girl and take them back to the table.

"Is that the best you could get?" Sam says, taking the choc ice from my hand and giving it an upwards lick that leaves a little point on the ice-cream and a spot of chocolate on her lower lip.

"Your son needs money for his course," she says. "I expect you to pay at least half next week."

She starts on the flake, sticking straight up from her ice-cream. She licks it. She warms it between her lips.

"I've a bit of a cash-flow problem," I start to say. "I'm not sure... it's very short notice."

She takes the flake deeply into her mouth, holds it a moment, then bites. The loud snap as her teeth meet in the middle startles the old ladies.

"I'll find the money," I tell her.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Objets d'art

"You going back to the office after this?" I ask my son over lunch in Antipasti.

"It's hardly an office when you've people standing on tables throwing paint at the walls," he says.

"Would have improved some of the offices I've worked," I say. "Studio then."

"Actually there is a resemblance to an office this week," he says. "One of the guys brought in an office chair and he's slowly cannibalising it for his work," 

I chew the thin, crispy pizza and spoon the froth from my cappucino. "Can you make art out of anything?" I wonder, and he gives me a look that says the answer's obvious.

"Of course you can."

"Surely not?" I say. "What about a slice of this pizza, two pregnant gerbils and a signed photo of Silvio Berlusconi?"

"Stick it on the wall that's art already."

"What about the collected truths of Tony Blair?"

"That would be minimalist."

"How about a steaming pile of horseshite?"

"Come on," he says. "Have you any idea the number of artists who've used steaming piles of horseshite in their work?"

"No," I say.

"Me neither," he says. "But it's a lot. Everything is raw material for art."

"Are you an artist?" says the waitress, come to collect the pizza crusts, and he gives her the smile that melts stones in space. She fumbles the plate and says "Sorry". 

"Just a student," he says and looks away.

The waitress lingers, acting busy with the crockery, but he's off somewhere in his head and doesn't turn back till she's gone.

"Lemme ask you something," I say. "Did you notice that woman serving us?"

"I saw her," he says.

"But did you notice her? Did you see that she liked you?"

"She did?" he says, surprised.

I shake my head. "You're missing several antennae, son. I've suspected it for a while. It's why you're still single."

"I'm still single because I saw one marriage up close and personal, when I was a boy. That was one too many."

"Good point. But they're not all like that." 

"Sure they are."

"They're not. Have you any idea the number of marriages that are perfectly happy?" I ask.

"No," he says.

"Me neither," I say. "But it's a lot. Loads of women make great wives. In fact women are the one exception to your theory about making art out of anything. You can't turn women into art ...."

He holds a finger up fast to silence me. "If you say 'because they're works of art already', he warns, "I'll disown you."

"I wasn't going to say that."

"Yeah, you were."

"Yeah, I was."

He shakes his head in sorrow and gets up to go.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Catholic tastes

Having lulled me yet again with her elfin charm, Isle of Jura and Belgian chocolates, Mary gets to the point. "Have you read those articles I gave you?" she asks.

I play for time with a sip of the mellow malt and study the photos of her extended family above the fireplace, with the latest and tiniest taking temporary pride of place. "So you're a great-grandmother now?" I try diversionary tactics with small hope of success.

"For the third time," she says. "Never mind that. I can talk about babies with anybody. I expect more from you."

"Fair enough," I say, swirling the whisky, holding it up to the light and seeing the tear-drops separate and slide inside the crystal. "From the look of those legs I'd say this is the 15-year-old."

She shakes her head but says nothing, simply staring at me. Like a well-loved teacher she knows I can't take her disapproval. "All right," I say. "Tell me what you want to talk about."

Her blue eyes sparkle. "The article on the legacy of Vatican II and the challenge of secular society," she says.

I groan. "Hell's bells Mary, couldn't we start with something simpler? You know I'm somewhere on the Buddhist spectrum. I think monotheistic religions stuff spirituality into straitjackets. Debates about Catholic doctrine go well over my head."

"Did you read the article?" she asks again.

"Yes," I admit.

 "Well then," she says.

"Well then what?" I say.

"Stop prevaricating and give me your opinion."

I take a larger slug of the malt than the cratur deserves, think fast and talk slow. "Well, the short version is that it's unhelpful to regard different sides of the debate as traditional and modern or progressive and reactionary," I say and she nods encouragingly.

"Are you agreeing with the statement or with my saying it's the main point of the article?" I ask her.

"Bit of both," she says. "Keep talking."

I run my finger round the inside of my collar. "Well, it's better to see them as a struggle between keeping things simple, the writer says, and engaging with the complexities of the modern world. Vatican II chose complexity."

She sits forward in the padded high chair, surrounded by tables containing all the specs, phones, money, books and newspapers she needs to get through the day without moving far. Nine decades and half a dozen operations slow you down some.

"It did and we welcomed it," she says. "But 50 years on it hasn't delivered. Why not?"

She's testing me and exploring the argument. "Several reasons," I say. "The writer highlights 'aggressive atheism' and the church's over-reaction to it."

"We circled the wagons," she nods. "We simplified. We covered up instead of opening out."

She sits back in her chair, seemingly satisfied, and I start to relax. I will never learn. "Pour yourself another whisky," she smiles at me. "You've earned it."

I reach for the decanter. "So that's the problem," she says quietly and my hand freezes as she leans forward again.

"Now what do you think is the solution?" she says.