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Friday, 3 January 2014

Who's the woman in this relationship?

Insults in Scotland are a form of bonding, a cultural device that doesn't travel well I discovered when I first went to England to work, and tossed a bit of friendly banter at a guy called Granville, who took mortal offence and never spoke to me again.

"Big girl's blouse," I thought, until I grew some cultural antennae and noticed the attention to courtesy, even among good friends, that prevails among our southern neighbours. 

Then on a writing trip to Helsinki a couple of years ago, I found Finns using gentle insults in the Scots fashion, and came up with the theory that it's about resisting pressure to conform from a powerful senior partner - both Sweden and Russia having laid claim to Finland throughout much of its history.

I still believe there's some truth in this. What I know for sure is that creative insults, done with humour in the right company, can generate shared pleasure at being on the same wavelength. 

But there is a line. And Susan just crossed it. 

"No I wouldn't," I tell her in Mary's house, where we've gathered on January 1st, to get the New Year off to the traditional sociable start, with whisky, chat and Belgian chocolate.

"You wouldn't what?" Carol says, coming through from the kitchen. "And why are you sitting so far from Big John on the couch?" 

"They were closer a moment ago," Susan says. "Much closer," she adds archly. "They separated when I asked if they were exploring their gay side."

"And I said I didn't have a gay side," John says. "But if I did, I'd be the man.

"I agreed," Susan says, nodding at me. "And he'd be the woman."

Carol takes a cursory glance at the two of us and sits down in the middle of the sofa. "He would," she announces. "Anybody can see that."

"No they can't," I say, feeling beleaguered. "I don't want to be the woman. I got nothing against women. I like women. I just don't want to be one."

"All we mean is that you have a soft side," Carol says, patting me on the thigh. "You're sensitive," she says, stroking my arm. "It's a good thing."

"That's right," Susan says, keeping her face straight with a struggle. "Lots of guys would envy you."

"Do you envy me?" I ask John and his laugh is loud, raucous and, to my sensitive ear, bloody tactless. 

"He doesn't envy me," I say. "Listen, I got in touch with my feminine side once. She didn't like me."

"Build a bridge," John says, in his gruff, manly way. "Get over it. It's all hypothetical anyway. We're not gay. You and I are not going to have a relationship."

"That's true," I say and start to chill. "This is excellent whisky, Mary," I tell her and she flashes her lovely smile across the room.

"Because if we were gay you wouldn't be my type," John adds.

"What?" I say, the tension back in an instant.

"You heard," he says. 

"This gets worse," I say. "I'm not just a woman. I'm a woman no one could fancy." 

"I fancy you," Susan whispers. "I'll show you when we get home."

I give her a smile and relax - too soon again.

"After you've washed the dishes and made the beds," she tells me.

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