Thanks again for your Highland hospitality, said the email. It was so great to catch up with you guys – I do rather like your chap – and let’s try to get together again SOON!
Aw shucks, it was nuffin! – went the response. – SOOOO fab to finally meet the lovely Mrs H.
A toast! – he declares, raising his glass and grinning. He has barely changed; just looks more … prosperous.
Slainte – they say and laugh and tip the delicate flutes to their throats all in perfect unison.
I’m so glad we could do this.
Me too. Finn sends his regards.
Oh, and mine to him. He’s an interesting person. Enjoyed his company very much.
As he did yours. And as for Mrs H – well, suffice to say I do feel she and I have bonded.
They grin at each other, clink glasses again. She’s wearing well; she’s lost the chub and he’s always liked her dress sense.
I know she feels the same. She says to tell you she’s gonna hold you to that walking holiday pact.
She pushes the plate of olives towards him. Go on – she says – they’re all yours. I broke a tooth on an olive stone a few years ago. Most traumatic experience of my life. Only just out of therapy.
Ha! I know you’re made of sterner stuff than that, Miss Smith. Or rather Señora Pacitti, should I say?
She picks up the faux-flirtation: flutters her lashes and crosses her eyes, making a face that reminds him exactly of her as a seventeen-year-old, waggles her ring finger at him. Her hands are tanned, the half-moons white on the unpainted fingernails. He can’t remember the last time he saw Vicky’s real nails. He indicates to the bar tender who swiftly refills their glasses.
You still play the piano? She had played brilliant honky tonk and all the Beatles’ hits.
She grimaces and he guffaws: she’d always had such an expressive face.
Christ, no! Haven’t played for years, Drew. Hated those bloody piano lessons. Saturday mornings, everyone else watching Doris Day and Shirley Temple repeats –
Excuse me! Not everyone. Some of us were freezing our bollocks off at football practice. And anyway, it was Noel Edmonds and –
– and there was poor me, standing in the bloody rain on Lincoln Avenue waiting for a Number 10 to High Knightswood.
She launches into a sketch featuring the malodorous piano teacher and her creepy husband and he is listening but he is also replaying that Drew. No-one ever calls him Drew. New to Oz, in those distant days of self-reinvention, he had readily gone with the flow and adapted to Andy. He finds himself looking forward to being Drew again all night.
We used to come round to yours and “jam”, remember? And your mum always made us sandwiches and Ovaltine. Brilliant!
Sarah Green no-bake cheesecake. She rolls her eyes and he smiles broadly, the dimples somehow off-setting the softening jawline.
– Sally Lyburn and her flute.
– Fat Ronnie with his oboe! – she groans. – The insufferably talented Elaine Ronald and her bloody violin!
Fergie on the bongo drum! And Sully on guitar. – He frowns here: Sully had been good on guitar, and good looking. – You had a fling with him, didn’t you?
– I did not! – she protests, laughing. She still has the same great laugh. – I mean, I was game, but I was fat. She laughs again, the laugh of a person completely at ease with themselves, a person with nothing to prove, and drains her glass with obvious relish.
Apart from the art work on the walls, the place really hasn’t changed. It’s celebrating its 40th anniversary. Theirs is the table in the far corner, and they grin at one another as they settle in to the old familiar space.
Remember how Cafe G used to be such an event? End of term, I mean, or parents-sent-money?
She nods, grinning. – And how nowhere else had furniture this cool. She thinks: it’s still an event.
And now it’s positively post-Shrek.
She laughs. She laughs like she eats: with gusto. – Yeah, but of course in fact it’s pre-Shrek. Imagine: we’re actually old enough to have such a frame of reference.
The Picpoul finally arrives and she says – the struggle is real, paying more than three euros a bottle.
Ah yes, of course; your place in France is in Picpoul territory, n’est-ce-pas? He makes a camp little moue and looks exactly as he did in sixth year.
Ah oui, m’sieur! You and Vicky must come and see us. If and when you get around to that grand European Tour of yours.
We’d love to, and we will. Two more years. Two more years of bloody boardroom bullshit and smart suits and … chuffing shaving. And then –
Tell me about your kids, they say and laugh and drink with the same perfect timing as before.
They talk about their children, and about the good ship Hubris and its churning wake of disappointment and guilt.
He sighs and shakes his head to demonstrate his disbelief. – I can’t believe my son is the age I was when I married the first Mrs H.
After a moment she says – You and Julia: the golden couple. We were all so envious! We all wanted to be like you. You were so … grown up, the pair of you, so sure of what you wanted. Where you were going.
She means it. Drew and Julia: clever, sophisticated and ambitious. Drew and Julia had outmanoeuvred the insecurities of mid-adolescence; far from the inexpert fumblings that still fixated their peers, Drew and Julia were clearly having fabulous sex (though of course any sex at that point would have been fabulous). Shortly after Drew’s graduation (“He’s got a First!” Julia had gasped on the phone) they had married and emigrated to Australia.
You’ll find this really tragic, she says – but I can actually remember not only what I wore to your wedding but also what I gave you. And for both, I am now truly sorry. Though as far as the pottery candelabra went, Morag Mackenzie was half to blame.
He smiles ruefully. He confesses he cannot recall the candelabra – no doubt it didn’t make the final cut to the Oz-bound container ship – any more than he can recall any other wedding gifts. The phenomenon of his first wedding, he says, feels like something that happened to someone else. – I don’t know about golden, he says. – We were just so young.
They volley biographies for a time: whatever happened to … d’ you ever hear from … when did you last see … did you know that …
Do you remember, she asks – coming round to the Gardner Street flat?
He starts to chuckle at some freshly resurfacing memory, coughs and splutters. – Christ, Lill. That was some bloody housewarming party. Had a hangover for a fucking week. That poof you shared with – what was his name? ( – Mike, she supplies) – sorry, shouldn’t say poof any more – he did a show-stopping striptease on the kitchen table, to Patricia –
She’s chuckling now too. – That wasn’t all he did on the kitchen table, let me tell you.
She likes being called Lill again: she’s been Lillian for a very long time.
– Patricia the Stripper. I’d never seen any thing like it. And me from a Wee Free background too. Oh God, God! He removes his glasses (he suits them, she thinks) and wipes his eyes with his napkin. – Holy Moley. Oh what a night, as the song goes.
Then, wistfully – I loved coming up to that flat, actually.
He means it. Two or three times a week (it really wasn’t on his way home at all, and if she’d thought about it, she’d have known that) he had made a point of dropping in just to be a part of it: the noise and the mess, the histrionics and the intrigue; the cheap beer and the occasional weed. Textbook student life.
I’ve thought about that over the years, she says. – It occurred to me much later, duh, that the attraction was perhaps all the stuff you felt you were missing out on. You know, the squabbles, the squalor, the some other third thing starting with squ …
Drew had lived at home throughout his student years, and was in a steady relationship with Julia. It was true that the flat had its attractions, true that he had yearned.
They talk easily through the main course and the second bottle of Picpoul de Pinet. They agree about the joy of finite solitude, him on his mountain bike, her on her trail runs. They agree that Paris is sublime and the world was far nicer without mobile phones. They agree that fresh asparagus is ambrosial and that Paul McCartney canny sing.
Shall we move on to red? he asks.
Drew, Drew, she chides him. – I don’t drink red wine any more. Stains your teeth something dreadful.
Isn’t that why God invented Colgate?
She bares her teeth at him. – Surely you’ve noticed. There’s something different about me.
Well, you’re a lot … smaller, obviously.
Nah nah, well yes, that too. But my teeth, Drew! My teeth!
What about them?
Oh for God’s sake! Fiftieth birthday gift to self: had them straightened! Please tell me you noticed!
If I’m honest, it was your tits I noticed.
She shows back her head and laughs with raucous delight.
Six million dollar teeth, mate. Hence olive stone trauma.
Vanity, thy name is Lillian. Now then, I see they’ve a rather good Zinfandel here. And – another moue – I’ve got Colgate back at the hotel.
She laughs again. – Oh fuck it, go on then. What the hell.
They talk about books they’ve read or should read. They both still love jazz, swing and big band. They discuss actors and films and favourite scenes in films.
Al Pacino. The Godfather.
Oh yes – and Scent of a Woman –
Yes! That tango scene –
He has a sudden desire to take her dancing. She suddenly remembers how much she liked the way he used to dance.
So she raises her glass: – To our lovely spouses!
The thing you love most about yours?
His resourcefulness, she says without hesitation. – Finn is the most resourceful person I’ve ever met. Closely followed by his generosity of spirit. Now you.
Vicky is … very committed, very compassionate.
Well, thank you. Yes. She’s beautiful. She takes care of herself, obviously. Stays out of the sun, goes to the beautician …
Gotta hand it to you, Drew: you’ve always pulled the gorgeous birds.
They smile fondly at each other. He thinks: not always.
She suggests cheese before dessert, French-style. He’s only too happy to comply. Vicky never eats cheese or dessert, and he wants this meal to go on and on. Lill talks about her love of France, and how she may try to settle there if one sad day she’s widowed. Finn loves Scotland too much: he’d never live anywhere else now. He gets more and more reclusive with each year. If I go first, she jokes, he’ll happily become that smelly old man in his shed.
Vicky’s the opposite, he says. – Restless. Needs company, distraction, new places. Don’t get me wrong; I love socialising and travel too, but …
You’re lucky to have a wife with such a zest for life, she reminds him sombrely.
I’m stuffed, to be honest. She sits back, grinning, and rubs her belly. He looks again at her shapely fingers, remembers them on the piano keyboard, remembers the feel of them –
He cracks the old favourite: – Shall we have a little intercourse?
I kinda like my dessert in a glass these days. Y’know, a wee Sauternes or suchlike?
He orders a half bottle. They gaze at each other, replete, pleasantly pissed, bemused by the random trajectories, the mysteries of physics, that have taken them from the rough Glasgow comprehensive, thrown them around the planet and brought them to this point right now, to this table in this Merchant City restaurant having its 40th anniversary.
I like that you don’t dye your hair, he tells her.
Likewise. Grey pride, innit.
It was a great summer, wasn’t it? 1979. School behind us, uni in front. That school trip to Dinard …
Hotel du Gare, she sighs. – That was my first trip abroad. That was the start of my love affair with France.
The oysters at Concarneau.
Fifty three kids spewing their rings up twenty minutes later!
Their mouths are sticky with the sweet wine.
And as we drew up at Victoria Drive the coach driver played “American Pie”. Whenever I hear that track, I’m back there. Seventeen and everything possible.
Just after that, Mrs Connor threw that weird party, didn’t she? We didn’t think anything about it at the time. What was she doing? A teacher inviting an entire class to an evening of underage drinking!
The polis came, remember? We shoved the booze in the washing machine.
Her husband had a predilection for schoolgirls, methinks, she says. – When you think about it now, she probably did too.
They both fiddle with their wine glasses, he rubbing the base of his with his middle finger while she lifts hers and swirls the Sauternes up the sides.
And then, he says softly, – right after that party there was Catherine Graham’s.
There was, she agrees quietly.
Julia wasn’t there, or she must have left early; Lill couldn’t recall. She and Drew had larked around as usual, dancing to Stevie Wonder (he loved Stevie Wonder, and she loved the way he danced) Only a few stragglers remained; it was very late. Somehow or other they had found themselves alone on the half landing, and somehow their laughing and joking had stopped. She was wearing her new Laura Ashley (Seconds Shop) scoop neck dress and earlier he had said You look nice tonight Lill, and she had fluttered her lashes and crossed her eyes and lisped Och, thankth. When he slipped the scoop neck off her shoulder and kissed her neck she murmured Julia is my friend and he replied She’s my friend too.
Her mother asked no questions but advised the application of toothpaste to the love bites and anyway the collar of her school blouse hid them from view.
The half landing, he says.
She nods. – I never told a soul about that.
He knows this is true. He wonders now about his motive, then.
Pity, he quips. – Could’ve saved me an expensive divorce.
Que sera sera.
Outside on Candleriggs the night feels surprisingly young.
Your lovely regular teeth are stained, he observes. Wanna come back to my room, he affects a daft French accent, suddenly shy – have a nightcap, use the Colgate?
She doesn’t: she wants this evening to go on and on.
He staggers a bit; turns it into a nifty wee paddy bah.
Nah, she says. – Let’s go dancing.