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Thursday, 25 April 2013

Staying in

Carol is my favourite lesbian. She came out to me last Christmas, when we sat up all night chatting.

"I've always had stronger feelings for women than men," she told me. "It's taken me nearly 30 years to realise what that meant. Also I feel like a man in a woman's body."

"You look like a woman in a woman's body," I say. "You're not exactly feminine but you are lovely."

She stares at me. "Are you coming on to someone who's just said she might be coming out?" she says. "What kind of idiot does that?"

"I was just trying to be nice to you," I say.

"Sorry," she says. "I'm a bit stressed. I don't know what to do. It's a big step. My mum will be disappointed. Having kids will be harder."

I'm not sure how it took me all night, but I said she had to do what was right for her. Not her mum or anybody else. I guess a lot of the chat was about making the right noises to support a decision she had made already.

"Thanks for listening," she tells me, as the morning light filters through the green living-room curtains. "Sorry I kept you out of bed."

"You say 'sorry' more than anyone I know," I tell her. "Being openly lesbian in a small town will be hard enough. Stop apologising. Get assertive."  

"Do you know why I decided to come out to you?" she says, giving me a big cuddle.

"Was it my fatherly warmth, sympathetic eyes and wisdom beyond my years?" I ask.

"No, it was because every other bugger had gone to bed," she says. "And I needed to tell somebody before I burst. It was you or the guy behind the couch, who threw up earlier in the spider plant."

I lean back and look down. "But he's unconscious and encrusted in vomit."

"I know," she says. "It's why I talked to you."

"That's a bit disappointing," I say.

"Sorry," she says.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Holiday home

I don't get the appeal of cats, so most of them don't like me, including Helen's little black job that she calls Sooty, a daft name for a cat I've always thought, though why anybody gives cats names in the first place I have no idea.

Dogs at least know their names. Cats don't appear to. It's all part of the aura of aloofness that cat-lovers claim for their pets, in contrast, they say, to the slobbering servility of the average dog. TS Eliot famously believed cats have three names, one used daily, one for special occasions and one known only to the cat.

It's all bollocks of course. The reason cats don't fetch sticks or come when you call is that they have only two brain cells. And one of them's asleep.

So when Helen asks me to check on her cat while she's on holiday I hesitate. "All you have to do is drive to the kennels, when I've been gone a few days, and see if Sooty is happy there," she tells me. "The last time I put him in somewhere it took him weeks to get over it. He was traumatised."

It seems an extreme description to me for how a cat can feel, but what do I know?

"So I'm trying this new place," she continues. "It gets a good name and I've talked to the woman who runs it. She seems nice and caring. But I'd like you to make sure he's all right. He's getting old and doesn't like change."

I know how he feels, I'm thinking, as I head south on the hill-road out of New Cumnock and the land gets steadily higher and bleaker. The slate roofs and whitewashed walls of the little farm, just off the road, look old but clean, as I turn into the yard.

The first discordant note comes when I open the car door and hear dogs barking. And not just barking but going berserk. That can't be nice if you're a cat here on your holidays, I think, as I get out and head for the entrance to the cattery, a well-signed wooden outhouse.

"He's been eating fine," the farmer's wife tells me, ushering me inside. "He doesn't come out of his bed when I'm here. But when I look in he seems happy enough. See for yourself."

The room is cold and lined with cages, their bars reaching up to the ceiling. All of them are empty, except the one in the corner, which is occupied by a fleece-lined, blue and white cat-cosy and a small plate of meat.  

"Go in if you like," the woman tells me, unlocking the metal grille door and pulling it towards us. I step inside, get down on my hands and knees and peer into the gloom. All I can see, way inside, are reflections of the light in two dark eyes. They are wide and startled-looking.

"Are you sure he's all right?" I ask. "My sister is very attached to him and she worries."

The woman smiles. "I know," she says. "I realised that when she was talking to me. But this isn't just a business. I care about animals. If there was a problem I would tell you, I promise."

I believe her. Half an hour later Helen gives me a call from Corfu. "He was fine," I tell her. "Eating well, they said."

"Did you see him?" she says, her voice strained.

"Yeah," I say. "He was a wee bit subdued."

There's a pause. "What did the place seem like?" she says.

"It was cold. There were dogs barking. He was on his own."

She says nothing. The silence stretches. "So I brought him home," I tell her.

"What?" she laughs loudly, all signs of stress gone from her voice.

"He's looking up at me now from the rug, with a wee smile on his face. I think he can hear you."

"Aw, that's fantastic," she says. "You've no idea how relieved I am. Will you look after him till I get back?"

"Sure," I say.

"That's wonderful," she says. "I can enjoy my holiday now."

I put the phone down and beckon to the cat. "Hey Sooty, come here. It's you and me for the rest of the week, pal. We'll have a few beers, watch the football and do some male bonding. What do you think?"

The little bugger ignores me completely.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Robins revisited

"I've decided the two robins on your bird-table aren't gay," Rachel tells me, over a coffee in her office at the university.

"I never thought they were," I tell her. "They're just good friends."

"Maybe more than that," she says. "I have it on good authority that male and female robins are pretty much identical. Robins are fiercely territorial, so if yours are getting along fine, they're probably Mr and Mrs."

"When you say you have it on good authority, you mean you've been talking to some guy in the pub again, haven't you?" I say.

"Yes he was a guy. And yes we were in a pub at the time. But he knew what he was talking about. He was a real geek."

"Means he can't tell the difference between male and female humans, never mind robins. How come you don't believe anything I tell you, but you'll take any old tosh from random punters in pubs?"

"He was a bird expert," she insists. "Kept budgies and canaries and knew about bumblefoot and psittacosis."

"Bumblefoot?" I say, slightly louder than I intend.

"Keep your voice down," she whispers. "There's people in here trying to work. We should go outside if you're going to start an argument."

"I'm not going to start an argument. I just like to get the facts right. Whereas you are just a teeny bit gullible."

The two lines between her eyebrows tell me I've said the wrong thing. But before I can dig myself out Diane appears at my side. "Are you upsetting Rachel again?" she says.

Tall, decisive, good-looking, Diane is head of the group Rachel works for. Takes no nonsense and makes strong men cry. Also me. "Be nice to her," she tells me, slapping me on the back and walking away.

I glance at Rachel and notice with relief that the lines are gone. Quick to forgive, she stays annoyed with me less than anyone I know. Usually. Means it concerns me more that she might, though.

"Are you all right?" she asks. "You look worried."

"She's cracked a couple of my ribs," I say. "Ah, it hurts."

"Don't be such a girl," she says.

"So if my robins are male and female, they'll be starting a family soon?" I say, giving her a soothing chance to share more geek-given info.

"Then making their nest," she says. "Which robins do just about anywhere - sheds, kettles, boots, coat pockets, car bonnets, hanging baskets. They're not fussy."

Diane strides past again and nods slightly when she sees we're in calm waters. "She's like a protective mum, isn't she?" I whisper to Rachel, who goes quiet for a moment.

"You should use that," she says. "Arouse her maternal instincts. Robins are fierce but they're great parents. They often feed other birds' chicks. Act like a chick and Diane will treat you better."

I stroke my chin. "Maybe," I say. "But taking lessons from nature is risky. She might be a praying mantis, not a robin. The female bites the male's head off."

"Only after mating," she reminds me. "If you don't mate with Diane you should be safe."

"I'll try hard not to," I tell her.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013


"You sure there'll be other men at this knitting hoolie then?" I ask Susan at the entrance to the old drill hall in Dalmenie Street, location of the first Edinburgh Yarn Festival. 

"Of course," she says.

"How many?"

"Two, maybe three."

"Counting me?"


"And how many women?"

"They're expecting 1500."

"I'll be conspicuous then."

"Nobody will be looking at you," she assures me. "They'll be too busy squishing."

Saying Susan is keen on knitting is like saying Romeo was keen on Juliet. Or George Osborne is keen on austerity. She adores knitting. If she felt as strongly about me I'd be scared. 

"Do you think I'm addicted to knitting?" she asked me, the other day.

"Of course not," I lied.

"Thank you," she said.

So when she asked me to chum her to the knitting festival, as her buddy had been taken sick, I couldn't refuse. But I wasn't happy.  

"Two guys and 1500 women?" I say. "Suppose I took you along to a meeting of the Cumnock trainspotters society, how would you feel?"

"You wouldn't do that," she says. "You stopped spotting trains when they got rid of steam, a hundred years ago."

"It's a hypothetical question," I say.

"I wouldn't mind," she says."I'd know they'd be weird, obsessive and uninterested in me."

"So that's what knitters are like?"

"Except we're not weird."

The lifesize cow just inside the door, its back carpeted with multi-coloured balls of wool, tells a different story. Knitted horn-warmers, one blue, one red, complete the disturbing picture.

"You can't tell me that's not weird," I say.

"It's creative," she says. "It's art."

"My son's an artist," I remind her. "We have meaningful conversations about art all the time. None of them involves woolly cows."

Inside the drill-hall the bustling scene takes time to process. Women, kids, tables, cakes, stalls, spinning-wheels and skeins of yarn of every colour. Thousands of them, stacked high.  "What's squishing?" I ask.


"You said they'd be too busy squishing. What is it?"
"It's what we do with new yarn," she says. "Take a look at the woman behind you." 

Blue jeans, no make-up, she is reaching for a hank of blue wool from the stall as I turn. First one hand squeezes the wool then the other, slowly, sensuously, like a cat stretching. Then she brings it up to her face and strokes her cheek with it. Her expression is rapt and dreamy.

"That's not normal," I whisper to Susan.

"It is if you're a knitter," she assures me.

I take another look. The woman's head is on one side now and her eyes are closed. She is still stroking gently. "I've seen expressions like that on women's faces," I say to Susan. "But not with a thousand other people in the room."

"And not recently," Susan says.

"True," I say. "But that's only because we have the lights out these days. Isn't it?"

"Of course," she lies.

"Thank you," I say.