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Sunday, 17 November 2013

Bronzed hunks in the sun

"Tell me again," Susan says, as we're sat in the University Café, which seems unchanged since I first parked my bum on its hard bench seats and ate its plain but tasty food, on moving to the city as a fresh-faced youth from Ayrshire, many years ago.

"Sure," I say. "They have crocodiles that rip your legs off, snakes that can poison you with a glance and spiders that pursue you implacably, before sinking their fangs into your soft, pale neck, even if you climb on the table to escape.

"Not that bit," she says with unaccustomed patience. "The next part."

I sip my black coffee pensively and shake my head. "There wasn't a next part."

"There was," she says. "You mentioned rugby players." 

"Oh yeah," I say. "There'll be loads of those, of course, strutting around in skimpy shorts, exposing their bulging muscles and hard bronzed bodies in the sunshine. You'll need to avoid them too.

"Are you all right," I add. "Your eyes don't normally point in different directions."

She fans herself with the menu, which surprises me on such a cold November morning. "Just feeling the heat," she says. "You're right. That sounds awful. But my son has asked me over for a holiday and I miss him. I promise I'll stay away from snakes and crocodiles."

"And rugby players," I say. "Don't forget the rugby players. Australians can be rough and hard and pushy, I've heard, especially with women."

She gives a little moan and stands up. "Back in a minute," she says. "I need some air."

So I study the menu, featuring chips, eggs and beans in various combinations, which sends me back to being 20 again, and sitting on these same seats, counting the coins in our pockets, to see if they'd stretch to a coffee. Then I look through the window at the bottom end of Byres Road.

Scents stir memories, Proust says, but for me it's a quality of the light, especially in Glasgow's West End in autumn, that carries me irresistibly backward. The hazy glow on leaves struggling to stay attached can transport me instantly to times past that now seem golden, but held their share of anguish.

The door opens and a flurry of russet leaves rises from the pavement, as Susan sits back down again. "That's better," she says. "It's chilly out there." 

"So you're going to Australia?" I say. 

"You want to come?" she says.

"No and I'll tell you why. I was in second year at university here and starting to struggle. I'd met a girl and was spending all my time with her and missing lectures. We got on great for a while then I started to see a darker side. She had a selfish streak and a terrible temper. 

"I made the mistake of introducing her to a pal called Jack Arbroath, over here on a scholarship from Sydney. Great guy. Used to entertain us with stories of wrestling reptiles and hunting snakes, spiders and women. He was irresistible to women."

"Don't tell me," she says. "He stole yours."

"I should have seen it coming. They ran away to Australia and I never saw either of them again."

"Broke your heart?" she says.

"I really missed him." 

"So going out there would stir painful memories," she says, patting my hand. "I understand."

"It's not that," I say. "I'm scared I bump into her again."

"You won't," she says. "Australia's enormous. Much bigger than Ayrshire."

"Is it though?" I say. "A couple of towns on the coast and a million miles of desert. You're bound to bump into people you know in the Spar shop." 

"I'll protect you," she says.

"You won't," I say. "You'll fall under Alligator Arbroath's spell too and I'll be left with Sandra."

"Does he play rugby?" she says.

"He does. He also wears baggy shorts and has bouncy corks all round the rim of his hat."

"You're right," she says, fanning herself with the menu again. "It's too dangerous for you. I'd better go alone."

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