RECIPE FOR DISASTER

RECIPE FOR DISASTER

INGREDIENTS

1 disgraced art school lecturer

1 desperate final year art student

1 19th century art school

1 spring evening – preferably 22 May 2014

mood-enhancing  substances, to taste

METHOD

1 Gently fold together the lecturer and the student.

So:  it’s not early, not late.  But in the parallel universe of the basement bar time is … irrelevant.

The lecturer is there because he is drowning his sorrows.  He is a disgraced Lothario and the day of reckoning is upon him.  He finds himself buffeted, this very week, by one further and as it transpires fatal allegation of sexual misconduct.  He must face facts, now:  he has failed to move with the times.  What once passed for – was, actually, indulged as – a bit of the old slap and tickle is now, bewilderingly, verboten.  He is the subject of a genteel banishment.

As for her, the student:  she knows full well that her degree show is going to be an unmitigated disaster.  She knows, furthermore, that some of this  – most of this, in fact – is her own fault.  But then there’s that teensy little other bit that could – arguably – be Someone Else’s Fault.  Not that that alters matters now.  No, no.  Now, on the eve of the degree show, it is too late.  She will be disgraced.

2 Leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

He is very, very much the worse for wear.  He should really go home.  

She is very, very much the worse for wear.  She should really go back to the Mac, but then, she reasons, what would be the point of that?  She dances.  No-one else is dancing, but the DJ obligingly flashes various vertiginous colours on the ceiling and the walls and she gives herself up to the thought-numbing pulse.

He spots her, the girl, gyrating.  He licks his lips.

She feels someone’s eyes upon her.  The place is practically deserted, so it doesn’t take long or Sherlock to trace the blaze of the gaze. Fuck!  It’s Dr Sleaze Bag McKendrick!  Well, that figures.

He thinks:  may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

She thinks:  what have I got to lose?

They smile in recognition of each other as an option.  She leaves the imaginary dance floor, sways over to his bar stool and says, Hey there Dr Mac.

He raises, unsteadily, his glass.  Here’s to you, m’dear.  All over bar the shouting, eh?

There follows a brief but intense period of negotiation.  She so badly wants not to end with a third;  he so badly wants his end away.

The mixture thus combined, it weaves its way up Renfrew Street.  It’s a hilly street:  he’s peching at the gradient; she’s fuelled by youth and whatever.  Her cheeks glow pink.

3. Knock back.

He lets them in an obscure side entrance, the key for which he really should not possess.  They make their overly cautious and therefore incautious way along a series of dark corridors until her space in the basement space is reached.  It is only at this point that each of them begins to question what they’re doing.  How can either of them provide any salvation for the other?  He will be sacked and she will fail.  Each mirrors in the dim backlight the disappointment of the other.  It will be impossible afterwards to judge who wept first, but certainly there they both are, weeping in front of each other.

I have loved it here, she sobs.  She has been here four years.  Me too, he croaks.  He has been here forty.  I’m so sorry, she wails.  I don’t know what I wanted from you.  There’s nothing you can do for me.  He nods then – to cover all bases – shakes his head.

There’s no more to say.  In unspoken accord, they begin to leave the room but just as they reach the door he makes a sudden impulsive and almost genuine grab for her; she yields, and they kiss a long, forlorn, almost fond kiss.  

4.  Bake in a pre-heated oven for 12 hours

As she bends back on her supple spine, she nudges the expanding foam of Tomaso’s installation a few millimetres closer to the projector lamp.

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FORTIETH ANNIVERSARY

AMUSE BOUCHE

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.

APERATIF

 A toast! – he declares, raising his glass and grinning.  He has barely changed; just looks more … prosperous.

They clink. 

 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.

Another?

Another.

ENTREE

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 –

They clink.

 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. 

PLAT

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!

They clink.

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.  

And beautiful.

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.

FROMAGE

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.

DESSERT

 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.

Amen, sister.

They clink.

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.

Awryt, Doris.

DIGESTIF

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.

  

Have Nothing in Your House

Boarding the 926 at Buchanan Bus Station, Angus Wilson was trying to feel neither too important nor too nervous.  Having spent his weekend preparing as far as possible for the challenge (and agonising over the appropriate dress code) now he made his way up the narrow isle, self-consciously clutching the graduation gift leather document wallet to his recently appointed chest and obsessively re-visiting how he was to go about the business of the next few days.  

Mr Cruikshank himself had briefed him on the assignment in such a way that left no doubt that this was both a generous act of faith and an early test of competence.

 Allerdyce Boyd was the last of a long line of valued valuable clients.  In fact, the professional relationship spanned no fewer than four generations:  Mr Boyd’s industrialist great-grandfather, having made his fortune, entrusted its stewardship to Cruikshank Balfour Todd back in 1903.

Mr Cruikshank had obligingly paused here, to allow Angus a rapid blink in the glare of corporate hindsight:  the original fortune, as everyone knew, marked only the beginning:  the Boyd story was the stuff of legend.

Angus – heart thudding inside the new Charles Tyrwhitt Oxford Weave shirt – had genuflected his way out of Cruikshank’s inner sanctum and devoted the next few evenings to meticulous research of all things Boyd – Limited, Holdings, Foundation:  global business empire; art collection; bequests and scholarships; charitable trusts, humanitarian aid and philanthropic projects.  But of Allerdyce, the very recently deceased, childless and reclusive heir, there was disappointingly little.  

 Under the terms of the Boyd Family Trust, Allerdyce’s country estate would now be gifted to The Nation, but the furnishings and pertinents thereof  his remaining personal effectswere to be auctioned separately.  This was where Angus was to come in. His shiny new academic credentials were impeccable and additionally, Mr Cruikshank had inferred, he would bring to the task the freshness and vigour of eager youth.  Angus was duly flattered, and genuinely excited by the brief to compile a full record of the contents of Ardfenaig House. He would be met in Mid Argyll by Bonham’s Jean-Paul Dorizon who would act as verifier and who would co-ordinate the valuation work to follow.

The job was thus huge, but simple.  Table everything.  Take the rooms systematically; work in a clockwise direction; photograph and describe every movable item.  Thank God for iPad and the MiView app.

He had been told to pack for a week in the first instance;  he would be accommodated in the nearest village, some twelve miles from the Boyd estate.

Angus had Sunday lunch, as usual, at his parents’ home.  They expressed excitement and offered their congratulations:  Cruikshank must think highly of him, must have spotted something about him …

He demurred with characteristic diffidence:  he was just the lowly clerk; Bonham’s were sending a specialist, Jean-Paul – 

 – Gaultier!! they quipped in chorus.

– Snaffle us a wee Fabergé egg!  

– Och, you’ll do us proud, love!  See you next Sunday! 

Angus was relieved that the population of the 0700 West Coast Motors coach was sparse. He laid his leather document wallet  and his carefully folded new tweed jacket on the empty seat beside him.  Conscientiously, self-consciously, he opened his iPad but the wi-fi faded to nothing at the Balloch roundabout, and anyway he found himself distracted by the views of Loch Lomond and the Ben.  He could not recall having been this way before and, reasoning that he would be working long hours for at least the next five days, eased himself into the strange role of tourist.  Tarbet, Arrochar and Ben Arthur, Loch Fyne and Inveraray unfolded like a Colin Baxter calendar, offering him a Scotland he knew of but did not know:  a land of lochs, mountains and glens burnished by bright May sunshine.  Fields were actually blue with bluebells.  Gorse yellowed the hills.  Loch waters glinted silver.

Twanging with nervous tension, Angus alighted as instructed in the small town of Lochgilphead, where one finger of Loch Fyne came to its quaint conclusion, and where Jean-Paul Dorizon awaited him as arranged.  The man was exactly as Googled:  suave, middle-aged, handsome and well-preserved, but – mercifully – friendly and informal.  The band of sweat on the Tyrwhitt collar began to cool into clammy relief.

They stowed Angus’ holdall (Mountain Warehouse) along with Jean-Paul’s (Bottega Veneta) in the boot of the incongruous rental Ford Focus.  It was agreed they would skip lunch, go straight to Ardfenaig and make a start.

Jean-Paul drove with ponderous urban caution along the single track road that paralleled the canal then forked away into utterly wild scenery.  En route, they established that this was mutually uncharted territory.  Yes, Jean-Paul was experienced in appraising the fortunes of others and directing auction houses.  Yes, he too had studied Art History.  But of the recently late Allerdyce Boyd, Angus’ guess was as good as his:  there was so little information, no?

They drove through the madly picturesque Gartnagrenach, following the signs for Ardfenaig Natural Heritage Site.  The single track road petered out to little more than a rutted track and the Focus felt a little storm-tossed.  Angus fought down the memory of the Inverary ten minute stop square sausage and black pudding roll.

It was an extraordinary topography, a smudging of land and water.  Cherry trees blossomed with a suburban incongruity.  A couple of deer crossed their path, as did a suicidally dawdling pheasant.  The steep slopes on each side of the track were pin-cushions of new planting …oak, Jean-Paul opined:  he had read about some economic or environmental initiative to reinstate the ancient temperate rain forest of the west coast. 

Despite the sunshine, Angus felt the damp furry green ubiquity of moss and rot.  Mistletoe and ivy wove their sly strangling way round ropy trunks, and at irregular intervals the run-off of innumerable burns made its lazy caramel way across the stony surface.

At last, they bumped their way round a final bend and into their first sight of Ardfenaig House.  Jean-Paul let the engine idle while they looked on for a moment in silent appraisal. 

It was an imposing building, rather than pleasing, having been extended to each side with disproportionately long wings, like an improbable early aircraft or prehistoric bird.  The low windows were mean and squinting; the paintwork had discoloured with age.  The haughty sweep of the driveway was spoiled by a series of deeply cupped potholes and the drystone estate walls had collapsed in places; wilted ferns fell from them like rusty hooks. 

Just as the car came to a halt at a respectful distance from the comically astonished open mouth of the front door, a figure appeared on the top step. The key-holder, surely:  Mrs Bowman. Far from the monochromatic Mrs Danvers of Angus’ imagination, this woman was rosy-cheeked, dumpy and anxious.

Jean-Paul bounded up the steps, all Gallic charm. –  Ah!  Mrs Bowman, I presume …

No, she wouldn’t care to go indoors with them:  Mr Boyd had always been one for his privacy.  No, she hadn’t been house-keeper, nor cleaner:  he and Mrs Boyd had led a simple life and kept themselves to themselves in the years between her death and his.  Mr Boyd had made do himself ever since his bereavement.  There was no staff apart from the Bowmans. Between them, she and her husband had done their best by Mr Boyd:  tended the grounds, brought him his groceries, did his laundry. 

Mrs Bowman thrust a surprisingly unprepossessing set of keys at Jean-Paul, advised that her phone number was on the pinboard in the butler’s pantry should they need her, and hurried away towards the Punto that had just nosed into view at the bell mouth. 

–  A simple life, Jean-Paul repeated softly as they watched the baggy cardigan expertly slalom the driveway.  He jangled the keys and waved Angus through the open door.

The two men stood, just over the threshold, arrested by astonishment.  Whatever each had expected – the Aladdin’s cave, the shrine, the mausoleum, the junk yard, the treasure chest – the sight before them stopped them in their tracks.

There was nothing.

There was nothing at all in the handsome square entrance hall, save the wall sconces set regularly between the many closed doors.  The two men, like errant chessmen, crossed the chequered floor. Exchanging a glance, they entered a room at random: a study or morning room, perhaps; it contained a fine Georgian writing desk – a Mont Blanc pen lay across a blotter on the polished surface – and a shabby low-slung chintz- covered armchair of indeterminate age.  The parquet was bare.

Adjacent was the library.  The walls were lined with full length, darkly gleaming bookshelves, and two well-worn winged chairs in a dark red chenille pulled up to an ornately carved fireplace above which a cloudy overmantel reflected two pale and puzzled faces.  The bookshelves contained the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the Oxford English Dictionary and many – possibly the complete – works of Shakespeare and Dickens.  Otherwise, they were empty. 

And so it went on.  Apart from the kitchen, which was old-fashioned but clearly had been in constant use until very recently, the ground floor rooms appeared to have been – well, erased.

Angus and Jean-Paul looked at each other in mute bewilderment as they roamed the house.  In the grand first floor drawing room – they surmised – there remained on either side of a faded Aubusson carpet two very stiff and formal Empire sofas upholstered in sun-faded striped silk.  An adjoining room contained a Steinway grand piano and double stool, and a breathtakingly beautiful harp.

On the dusty dressing table in the main bedroom, a brush, comb and hand mirror were carefully laid together, their dulled silver backs, it occurred to Angus, a sullen rebuke.  A cream silk dressing-gown dangled from a padded hanger, its ghostly doppelgänger dangling back from the mirrored armoire.  It was obvious that Mr Boyd had latterly slept in a much smaller room at the opposite end of the long empty corridor. 

The two men came out into the sunshine and sat on the top step.  Jean-Paul was moved to say that he had never, in his entire professional life, known anything like it.  Angus would never forget his first job, no?

Angus shook his head.  He had done a lot of head shaking in the past couple of hours.  He shook, and Jean-Paul nodded, he noticed:  perhaps it was a cultural thing.

They pondered aloud the possibilities.  Theft.  Deception.  Mr and Mrs Bowman, confidence tricksters par excellence.  Perhaps Allerdyce Boyd had been a great practical joker.  Perhaps there was some private family dynamic – a feud, a challenge, a reckoning – or some shameful secret such as addiction or extortion or blackmail.  

  They agreed to carry out the task as intended:  they would document everything in the house.  It would take a day.  They would start now, stay one night, finish the following day.

As soon as one of them made a phone call (this would be Jean-Paul of course, as the senior colleague, for whom Angus felt a disproportionate surge of gratitude) the shit would hit the fan.  Above all, the matter must be kept for as long as possible from the press.  There must be absolute discretion.  Angus switched from head-shaking to nodding.  Jean-Paul stopped nodding; shook his handsome head sadly.  Definitely cultural.

They dined early at the Gartnagrenach Inn, eating slowly and solemnly, making no reference to their earlier discovery, trading carefully edited versions of themselves.  They retired early to their rooms.  Back in Glasgow, the newly informed Mr Cruikshank was no doubt in an apoplexy of incomprehension. 

 Angus lay awake with his new non-knowledge.  His mind’s eye roved over the big empty house, and he marvelled at the capacity to live with so few possessions.  Of course, Allerdyce Boyd had been raised in plenty; perhaps that had burdened him.  Soon the media would be awash with theories: conspiracy, connivance, concealment.  But Angus rather fancied it thus:

Mr and Mrs Allerdyce Boyd would have known the Morris edict about usefulness and beauty; they would have read Endymion; probably once kept a first edition (or two) of Keats on one of those library shelves.

It was a dinner-time game, perhaps: a trivial pursuit.

  • Most useful work of literature.
  • Rarest coin.
  • Most valued photograph.  
  • Favourite coat.
  • Painting
  • Ceramic
  • Sculpture

And so on.

The thing was, they had probably grown sick of it:  all that stuff.  Wanting for nothing, they had wanted nothing.  All that mattered was usefulness, beauty and joy.  All they needed was each other.

 Angus imagined the pair of them, chortling over assumed eBay identities and shushing each other as they made nocturnal drops in the doorways of charity shops.  He imagined Allerdyce Boyd addressing his beloved wife in his perfectly modulated voice.

– One day, he might have said, – One day, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone came into this house and couldn’t believe their eyes?

.

The Space Reserved

There was a girl on the special bench.

The tall spare figure, stricken by the unforeseen circumstance of the slight solitary one, felt a dangerous, reflexive contraction of lips and eyelids.  Her wristwatch showed eleven eigh-em Wednesday term-time March. 

Running sometimes runaway tongue around the top teeth in the dry mouth, she thought for a moment before she committed to her approach, carefully face-friendly.

The girl accorded her a brief barely-glance then put her face front forward again, square to the hilly view.  The woman stood, weight evenly distributed, tapped the recently black painted metal armrest nearest her.  Her pointy ahem elicited no response and the girl did not budge.

-Scuze me, the woman began:  well enough she thought.  But her chest was pounding.

No reaction.

-Scuze me.  I’m sure you had no way of knowing, but this is a special bench.

The girl said nothing but scuttled to the shady far end, tucking her long coat tight against her thighs.  It would have to do:  the woman breathed sigh-deep and took up not quite the vacated central space; kept slightly sunny sideways.  She knew more than most the importance of space.

-Thank you.

There they remained for some time, shoring up between them the cold fresh air.

The woman knew from the spine-creep of chill that she should get going.  She stood and said well good bye then, and went on, inhaling deeply, face inclined to the late afternoon early spring sunshine.  As she climbed the steep woodland path she paused frequently to close her eyes and consider the patterns and colours that formed on her inside-eyelids.  She knew this to be an almost meditative activity, more helpful than anything in her official treatment schedule.

From the viewpoint, the strange girl could be seen as a dark smudge on the … bench.  Just the bench, she sternly reminded herself.  Nothing special about it.  We’ve dealt with that.  She regretted now the way she had spoken to the girl.  Not that it really mattered.  The poor lamb was obviously unwell.  A selective mute, the woman decided, tipping a slow sage wink to the distant indifferent slopes.

On the bench below, the girl squinted at the odd, rangy woman far above:  obviously unwell.

That evening, the woman pitched her pointy ahem spurtle-like into the cough-soup of the recreation lounge.

– I have an encounter to recount, she announced.  She had thought of this clever opening during dinner and was pleased with it. – I’d like to recount to you all an encounter I had today.  As I count you amongst my closest confidantes.  

At the casting of this pearl there was a gratifying frisson amongst the swine: some expectant rustling, a rearrangement of cushions and features.

– I met a young woman today, she began. 

Her tone was authoritative and her voice carried easily, yet she found herself quickly faltering.  Because really what was there to say?   The girl could have been no more than 15 or 16 years old.  She had been curiously … blank.  

– So … in conclusion, I surmise that she is a recent arrival on the Observation Ward.

Miss Downie had been listening enthusiastically and now made a suggestion in her infuriating faux-timid fashion.

– Have you considered, dear, that it’s quite likely the poor soul has been sent away for her confinement.  They sent me away, you know, when – 

– Yes, yes Miss Downie;  we are all well aware of what happened to you … 

( in testing conditions it was important to show exemplary tolerance) 

– And that was, undoubtedly, the beginning of all your subsequent woes.  But, with respect, that’s not what they do these days.  And Observation Wards were never about that.  In fact.

Here she was better qualified than most.  It was the stuff of irony, not to mention metaphor (and she had voiced this view most forcefully upon the occasion of her arrival) that she should have found herself detained within the very precinct of  her expertise.  She who had made it her life ‘s work to foster a better understanding of ways to cloister the cuckoo.  She did not regret at all upsetting so many members of staff with her scholarly insistence on referring to the establishment as The Asylum.  Because the word “asylum” seemed to her to have come full circle.  A place of safety.  An assurance of civilised comportement.

She understood exactly how this place had come to be.  Her specialism had been garnered painstakingly, in the pre-internet post-graduate world of carefully curated special collections; of dusty statistical accounts on dismal basement archive shelves that stank of dank.  Dank-stank:  she liked the sound of that.  But she knew better than to get side-tracked.  She often struggled with words, the utter unfettered promiscuity of them; their fastidiously mad alchemy.  It had been her babbling raving spit-bubbling invective that had landed her in here.  Though that had been symptomatic, of course:  what had really landed her in here was the unendurable loneliness.

–  I imagine you’re on the Observation Ward.

There they were again, same bench, same configuration, different day. 

–  I myself have been there, she continued:  she was known for her tenacity.  – Yes, I spent quite some time there.  Food wasn’t bad, as I recall. Unless you’re a vegetarian, perhaps – ?

Still the girl offered nothing but her left profile, which the woman scrutinised with guileless curiosity. 

– You’re not local, she pronounced.  – You don’t belong here.  

The silence was perfectly balanced; entirely comfortable.   The woman ventured further. – Not that any of us could be said actually to belong here.  Hah! Well.  Enjoy the rest of your day.

On their third encounter, the woman was moved to make a confession.

– Listen.  There’s something I’d like to say.  I want to … apologise.  About my um opening gambit to you.  

Gambit-gamble.  Rabbit-ramble.  Steady, she thought.

– You know – well actually you may not even remember, and for all I know you can’t even hear me because God knows you are the most singularly unresponsive of persons – but I know at any rate, that I was cross about you being here.  Here, I mean, on this particular bench.  I think – I believe I recall –  that I called it, ah, the special bench, as if  – as if it were italicised or something! And I shouldn’t have done that, it was silly of me and I’m ah sorry.  

The girl was marvellously motionless:  truly, it was an art form.  Unless she was a deaf mute, of course.  Entirely possible.  The woman smiled suddenly:  here she was at one plank-end with all the heft of sensory overspill and there was this strange husk at the other, hollowed out by impairment.  See-saw sensory daw!

– No need to apologise.

The woman may have given a yelp of shock;  she could not be sure.  The girl’s voice was low and assured, not at all the reedy whisper that might have been expected.

They turned and stared at each other, resolutely not smiling.  Then the girl said:

– What makes this the special bench, then?

Oh.  There was a question!  The unblinking regard continued, each of them scanning the other for tell-tale signs of imbecility.  To her surprise, the woman looked away first. With a gentle throat-clear she offered:

– Did you know that the West House was designed by the prominent Edinburgh architect David Cousin?  Or that it was the first to be built in Scotland further to the 1857 Lunacy Act?

The girl gave a slow-motion single shake left and right of her head.  The woman, warming to the task of erudition, spoke in her lecturer’s voice about the influential design that now cradled them:  the importance of a bucolic setting; what Foucault called the “space reserved by society for insanity”.

– Physicians who specialised in mental illness were known as “alienists”.  I think that says it all, don’t you?  To alienate.  Alienation.  Alienated. 

She kept her gaze carefully forwards, on the bumpy distance.

– You still haven’t told me about this bench.

– No, well, perhaps that’s for another time.  So what brings you here?

For a moment they were both holding their breath, and then an extraordinary synchronicity turned them towards each other once more.  The girl smiled, sad-slow.

– Well, perhaps I’m an alien.  On Observation and Assessment.

– Yes, I thought as much.  Vindicated, the woman felt a surge of interest. 

– They hope to “restore me to normal life”.  As if that should be an aspiration.

The woman thought:  this girl is a seeker; she is suffering.

She said: – It was a man called John Locke who first suggested that insanity was an emotional disorder rather than a physical disease.  He believed that insanity was caused by the mis-association of ideas.

  A mis-association of ideas, the girl repeated, tonelessly. – I think that’s probably what they think is wrong with me.

The woman thought:  there is something buried so very deep here.  A stash, a hoard at the core of this girl: molten.

  She said: – We have Locke to thank for the move from mechanical restraint to the rehabilitation of the morale with which we are treated today.

The girl thought:  poor mental bitch.

They met regularly, deliberately, after that.  For the girl, the flow of the woman’s histories – first the general, then, gradually, the personal –  acted as an emollient against the itchy rasp of the present: for the woman with all her dammed up words, the girl became a vessel, a receptacle of infinite capacity:  the relief was like lancing a boil.  From the simple beginnings    the poorhouse, the workhouse, the asylum – she led her not altogether incurious companion on the journey from the commerce of mad business to the concept of mad geographies.

– So you see that the location and the layout of the new asylums came to be based on moral and medical considerations.  

They gazed across the planned environment:  formally planted beds of shrubs and herbs; lovingly tended vegetable gardens;  mature woodlands of oak, chestnut and elm.  The girl could identify by now the poorhouse (now the nurses’ home); the lodge house, the Superintendent’s house (now the admin block), the laundry, the boiler house, the ruins of the mortuary.  She felt herself drawn to the simplicity of an inmate’s life:  the uniform;  the rations; the importance of religious observance.  The classification of patients – the orderliness, the segregation –  appealed to her.  She knew about general paralysis of the insane and the practice of boarding out; she knew something of the work of John Sibbald and David Crow; she knew that this was (allegedly) the only asylum still in use in Scotland. 

– I am free to leave at any time, the woman said one day.  – I choose to be here.  I find it interesting that this particular asylum originally boasted an “airing court”, an enclosed space surrounded by high stone walls..  When they demolished the walls the number of escapes actually fell and recovery rates rose.  

– Freedom is a burden.  A trap.  Illusory.  Is that why you choose to stay?

Startled, the woman thought for a moment, weighed the risk to self, opted for the truth.

– Well, it goes back to Foucault, I suppose:  I enjoy the reserved space.  And I am…. prone to sudden urges.

–  Aren’t we all.  

This girl, the woman realised, had become terribly important to her.  To no-one else had she ever revealed so much.  There was something immeasurably soothing, wildly calming about her – containment.  With her restraint, her poise, her immutable sense of  self, she was the antithesis of today’s instant indiscriminate comradeship and careless confidences.  This girl gave nothing away. Would give nothing away.

And then:

– What you told me about the mad geographies … 

There was something different today about the girl.  An energy.

… well, I’ve thought about that a lot and I’ve found some interesting Gaelic stuff concerning, you know, “healing places”.  Like lochs and wells.

The woman, mastering the sudden urge to reach over and embrace the girl, contented herself by remarking – You seem … different today.

– I’m leaving.

The woman quelled another sudden urge – to slap the girl, throttle her, scream in her face HOW DARE YOU? 

Instead, they sat in silence, shuttering all the unsaid between them.  When at last they rose as one to leave their words tumbled together, comically.

Well, I wish you good luck/ thank you for your company/ safe home/ I’m not sure what that means/ remember now:  usefulness, industry and virtue!

This last riposte a tragic stab at gaiety.  Stiffly they shook hands.  The girl smiled with regal sadness.

– It’s been a privilege to share the space reserved.

And so the woman resumed sole occupancy of the … bench, and she continued to stop there for a time every day, long after her discharge.  She continued to revel in the bracing walk through the woods and the steep ascent to the viewpoint.  She continued to think with great fondness about the girl;  her capacity for stillness, her dense melancholy.  Even after the news broke and the girl’s image was inescapable, blackly swathed, devoid of expression and wielding some terrible automated weapon, the nostalgia did not waver.  The headlines babbled, raved, spit-bubbled their invective:  British Subject Lakia is Latest Isis Bride.

So her name was Lakia. The woman Googled it. An Arabic name, meaning “treasure”.

 

Intoxication

You can call me John. It’s not my real name of course, but I am advised to identify myself to you in some way, so John I shall be. In truth, I wouldn’t have minded being a John. It strikes me as strong, solid and no-nonsense: all perfectly desirable qualities, as I’m sure any one of us would acknowledge. A John inspires confidence, I think. (Except in America where, I believe, it means water closet and/or prostitute’s client.)

So: I shall be John. I assume that this is to give you some sense of me as a fellow human being; to de-demonise me, as it were. The other advice I have received is to write frankly and without undue reflection, and this – again, I am making an assumption here – will satisfy you as to my state of mind, my motivation and gratification and so on.

Well. I am bound to tell you from the outset that what I think of myself, what I consider myself to be is an observer. First and foremost, I like to watch. I have always been thus, I think. My earliest recollections are of looking and noticing. I can remember quite vividly, for example, that which I saw from the vantage point of the burly old perambulator, stuck up sitting straight as I was against the adjustable base. Oh dear me, how uncomfortable! And yet it was good apprenticeship for later physical trials, and it did offer me the fascinating view of my dear mama’s belted belly as she pushed – pushed – pushed! Actually, on (forbidden!) reflection, I cannot say with certainty that it was my dear mama with the tightly cinched belt and the tiny creak below of skirt fabric (grosgrain, I fancy) as the thighs moved rhythmically underneath, push push pushing me up the hill and down the dale: no indeed, for it may have been Evelyn my loyal-to-the-grave nanny whose muscular limbs pumped so pleasingly before my innocent gaze.

Anyway. That’s a digression, and I’m sure strictly speaking that’s not allowed.

So. To recommence: I consider myself an observer. Of people, places, texture, nuance, tension, passion, suppression. Of movement and stillness. Of scent. Of – well, everything, really. Nowadays they would probably diagnose me with hypersomethingorother. Put me on medication at an early age and spoil my fun.

Ah, I sense your anticipation. You imagine for me childhood abuse; boarding school bullying. You are well-intentioned but wrong. I was neither bugger nor buggered at boarding school and my childhood was charmed. My parents adored me – even when I stapled the dogs’ ears together, they understood.

Baudelaire, also, understood the likes of me. He extolled the virtue of the flaneur spectateur. He recognised the value of the social observer; he prized the function thereof. Had I been born in a different age things would almost certainly have worked out differently for me.

I would like to begin at the beginning , but in truth I don’t know when that was. I have already mentioned the memory of my perambulator and so I have to suppose that this tendency has always been present in me. I have always watched and noted. In my school days there was no problem: at school everybody watches everybody. It’s completely normal, for heaven’s sake. Ditto Cambridge. (Alumni will bear this out: others amongst you will just have to take my word for it.)

So – let’s fast forward: let’s cut to the chase, as they say these days. You no doubt imagine me as the archetypal figure in dark clothing in the dusky shadows in the thicket at the edge of your well-lit life. To a degree you are not wrong. Edges are excellent observational bases and a paucity of light is reassuring. And yes, play parks too, assuming – and this would be your assumption – that my interest lies purely in minors.

I will not deny it: I have spent many happy hours in play parks. That is not to say that they would now be my preferred habitat; far from it. For a start, one has to accept the increased vigilance of today’s parents and grand parents and child minders. (Child minders! It makes me think of London gangsters and Chicago mobsters and Glasgow hoodlums who all have minders/ body guards/ thugs to repel The Perceived Threat). Secondly, quite honestly, there’s the elemental challenge. The vagaries of the British climate, if you will. Clothing has to be adjusted in the wake of the sun’s passage. Ditto position. And of course the little darlings are simply forbidden the air when it grows too fresh. Finally there’s the issue of plausible motive. Nowadays, if one simply wishes to sit and observe one will draw unwelcome attention to oneself. Yes, of course I’ve thought about a dog but the truth is I just don’t like them.

Suffice to say, I have given up play parks, more or less.

Now museums, on the other hand, I can still enjoy greatly. Vigilance is reduced. Ditto the elemental challenge. Ditto plausible motive. No-one gives a second glance to an elderly gent pottering slowly from exhibit to exhibit; no one thinks anything of him sitting perfectly still on a welcome bench in the middle of a gallery, or sipping slowly on a cup of tea in the cafe, or poring over the fridge magnets and soft toys and novelty pens in the inescapable shop on the way out.

But here’s the truth of it: he can watch – greedily. He can observe to his heart’s content the insouciant limbs and torsos and buttocks – oh! the vulnerability of those so-easily-snapped wrists and necks and ankles!

Yet museums have their limitations too. Everyone behaves. Everyone is shod and clad. If I am to be frank, museums I have found to be better than play parks but inferior to swimming pools.

Ha, yes, I know – it would not be your first thought, would it? And yet, now that I mention it to you – I, John the strong, the solid the no-nonsense; John who could in another life be the dependable and upright law enforcement officer, with a name like John no holds are barred – now that I write the words swimming pools, now you get it, you get it in a blinding instant.

A swimming pool offers us a lovely cross-section of humanity. We have communal showers. We have freedom of movement, we have joy, we have innocence, we have pleasure. We have skinny young naked limbs. No-one gives the elderly gent a second thought, or if they do it’s one of sympathy – poor old soul! – or admiration – well good on him! – as he makes his tremulous way through the tepid water.

Under-water observation is especially special. Under the water, the rippling lines of the darker tiles grow straight. Under the water, the hullabaloo is muffled. Under the water, all those lithe bare legs take on a particular pallor, an exquisite vulnerability – oh! I could be a killer shark, watching watching watching. It whets the appetite like nothing else. Not often, but sometimes it is true I permit myself to swim into a pair of legs or a flat breast and immediately I come to the surface to apologise, taking avuncular hold of the body at the slim hips or the tight buttocks – because who would remonstrate with a feeble old man? Who would judge him by today’s paranoid standards of what is appropriate? He is an old man, after all! He is weak and harmless!

And yes, I do in truth consider myself harmless. I have never hurt a soul. I observe. I am Baudelaire’s noble flaneur spectateur. I look. I watch. I see. I notice. I spectate and – all right, I admit it – occasionally I speculate. But who amongst us has not?  And that is as far as it goes. Now, where is the harm in that?

EIGHTY PER CENT IS WHAT YOU SEE

Well, he’s lookin mighty fine and, as everyone knows, 80% is what you see.

“Lookin sharp, Dan ma man,” he tells his reflection in the bathroom mirror, and it’s true: he does look sharp. His is the kind of sharp that drives the deal, bags the promotion, beds the bird. He is absolutely rockin – if he says so himself – rockin the new burgundy merino turtle neck below the Charles Tyrwhitt tweed blazer, the lining of which is exactly the same rich bloody hue. Above the turtle neck he is precision shaved – he’s very pleased with the new Turkish barbershop round the corner; a bangin job on the designer facial hair and just the right degree of fade on the sides of his – let’s face it, very handsome – head.

He bares his lovely regular teeth at himself for the final check: good, good: no food deposits. He gives himself his most winning smile, the smile that today will get him the job. He blows himself a kiss as he closes the bathroom door.

In the hallway he checks his pockets: phone, wallet, crib sheet, lip balm. His keys, still strange, are in his hand. He steps out on to the landing, noting the pinch across his toes from the slightly too tight but very smart new Chelsea boots, tuts at himself when he mismatches key and lock, then shimmies round the corner and presses for the lift.

He breathes deeply and mindfully – he’s a twenty-first century male, after all – and watches the yellow numbers blink their bright ascent to the ninth floor. Normally he would take the stairs (every day is leg day) but he cannot risk any degree of crease or sweat. Besides, the lift is always clean and fragrant and best of all has a very large mirror, affording the opportunity to appraise a good extra eighteen inches or so of himself. Yes, he thinks; the belt, boots and blazer are an excellent match. The new black chinos hit just the right note, he feels: he is in fact “smart-casual” to the very life.

“Lookin shaaarp,” he reaffirms. He winks conspiratorially.

On the ground floor he is caught in the act of admiring himself by the woman into whose lap he has almost tumbled as he casts his reflection a last backward look.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry!” He whirls round to face his direction of travel – there is a lip-smacking glimpse of burgundy lining as he does so – and steadies himself by holding her slight shoulders lightly.

“Did I just tread on your – ” he falters as he takes her in.

“No harm done.” She follows his gaze to her shocking pink patent leather footwear. “Doc Martens,” she smiles. “Never knowingly undershod.”

Under normal circumstances, Daniel is receptive to clever badinage such as this, but today is not a normal circumstance. He pats her upper arms in an awkward and vaguely avuncular fashion no doubt brought on by the tweed blazer and general prospect of fast-track adulthood, smiles off into the distance somewhere above her head and (defying the first blister already forming) strides off into his future.

He doesn’t get the job, but that’s okay: he knew he didn’t dazzle the panel, and besides he didn’t really believe in the company.

A week or so later, he’s in the lift again, fretting a bit about his hair and eyeballing the subcutaneous simmer of a pimple on his chin. On the fifth floor, two people get in. One of them flashes him a sidelong smile. “Hi again.”

“Hi there!” Daniel smiles, all phoney bonhomie. The peculiar silence of the elevator journey ensues. In his head he’s trying to rehearse responses to likely interview questions but he can’t quite shake off the hair and skin issues. He hangs back, as manners dictate, to allow the two ladies to exit the lift. They murmur their thanks, then from the far end of the foyer one calls over her shoulder, “Good luck!”

Daniel waves in absent-minded acknowledgement: his mind is on the interview. It goes well. He buys himself an eight-pack of Tennents on the way home.

Nailed it, man,” he points at himself in the lift mirror. “Bangin.”

He doesn’t get that job either, but at least the Chelsea boots have eased up a bit and the inaugural blisters are deflating nicely.

If Daniel were an actor, he could call this state of affairs “resting”. If he were a posh southerner, he would describe it “freelancing”. But here in the Calton it’s a fact of life known as “unemployment.” The Turkish barber’s brother takes him on for a few shifts a week in his kebab shop. Cash. No turtle neck required. On evenings when he is working there he dresses in regulation black, pulls on his old Nike Airs, and takes the stairs.

Assiduously, he applies for everything. Of the applications he makes, he grows accustomed to a one-in-twenty response rate. Yet he is not downhearted, for he is young, smart, handsome and privileged. His parents spread themselves below him as a catch-all safety-net. But Daniel wants to prove himself, to forge his own way in this world. The kebab shop hours cover his basic expenses, he eats a lot of kebabs, and he keeps his ambition firmly in sight.

Weirdly, he comes to regard the girl from the fifth floor as a sort of talisman; she always seems to be in the lift on days when he is going to an interview. At length, they exchange names.

“Good luck,” she says every time.

“Thanks Leeanne, ” he responds.

In a few weeks, they have established a script.

“What is your mantra, Daniel?”

“I like myself and this is my job.”

“Good man.”

They fall into a subconscious pattern of turn-taking on the Exit button but he always waves her through first: “After you.” She always smiles her appreciation.

Daniel is a young man born to success, and so he finds its elusive nature difficult to assimilate. His pride is dented; successive tides of rejection nibble at his self-belief. His friends – those with vocational degrees – are now all employed, albeit not always happily. He begins to think he ought to have done a post-graduate course after all, but he cannot admit this to – well, anyone.

Except the girl from the fifth floor. Leeanne. He doesn’t mean to off-load to her, of course. And it doesn’t even happen in the lift, but on the (it’s true, potentially very romantic) St Andrew’s suspension bridge, at around eight o’clock one November evening.

Daniel has just returned from his furthest outpost to date in the pilgrimage to employment. He has crossed the initial virtual threshold, and successfully negotiated the personal promotion vlog. He has been invited for a two day aptitude assessment – expenses mercifully paid – to Newcastle. There, he has navigated all manner of spurious psychometrics exhorting him to climb “out of the box” the better to contemplate the “blue sky”.  He has obligingly identified whom he would choose to be his celebrity parents. He has obediently imagined himself in, and manoeuvred himself out of, several surreal and stupid scenarios. He feels somehow diminished, demeaned by persons not much older and infinitely less perceptive than himself.

“We’ll let you know just as soon as possible,” the young woman (very young!) said to the final and tragically eager group of ten. “Thank you. Safe home now.”

It’s a beautiful Friday evening, the polluted orange glow darkening to a perfect autumnal ochre. Alighting at Central Station, Daniel arms himself with a brace of chilled Pinot Grigio from Sainsbury Express and follows the Clyde to Glasgow Green and the floodlit blue bridge that bandages the funny wee elbow-bend in the river. Here he spreads the Sainsbury bag – mindful of the blazer – and sits, tries to attune himself to the soothing rhythm of the rowing teams passing in smooth convoy below him.

What’s the matter with him? He swigs and contemplates. He swallows and considers. Where is he going wrong? The feedback has been suspiciously anodyne; sinister in its consolation. He’s a great guy, a strong team player. Everyone concludes he’s just not quite right for this position. Everyone regrets he’s not the fit for this company. Everyone wishes him every success. Elsewhere.

He watches the water flow below him. He looks to his right: Templeton on the Green, and his own lovely flat. He looks to his left: Hutchesontown and the Gorbals. And – shit – the girl from the fifth floor. Leeanne.  She moves towards him, smiling. And then she stops. It behoves him to look up at her, at least. He goes the extra mile: he smiles and says, “Hi.”

“Hi yourself,” she replies, and stops. Daniel stifles a flash of panic.

“Givvus a swig, then.”

With a meekness that puzzles him, Daniel passes her the bottle.

“Ooft. Could be colder, eh?” she pronounces. “The wine, I mean. Not the weather.”

Daniel finds he has no residual banter with which to parry.

She aligns herself with him and silently they polish off the first bottle, each fastidiously wiping the neck before passing it to the other. When he reaches to open the second ( all hail, the screw-top), she lays a surprisingly warm hand on his tweedy arm.

“I’ve got glasses at home. And a freezer, for the rapid re-cooling. Just saying.”

“I bet I’ve got a bigger balcony though.”

“Hmm. Could be mighty chilly up there on the ninth floor.”

“I’ve got blankets,” he says. “For the rapid re-heating. Just saying.”

“Hmm. So what brings you out here at this time of day?” she asks, smiling. “Would that which you are sporting be ye olde interview garb? ”

“Oh God, yeah,” Daniel grimaces. “I’ve been in bloody Newcastle for two days. Demonstrating aptitude. Playing roles. Simulating stimulation. And so on.”

“Ah,” she deadpans, staring straight ahead of her, down-river. “I feel your joy.”

Daniel squints sidelong at her, trying and failing to gauge the level of her mockery.

“Should’ve done a post-grad.  Too late now.”

“Ah,” she nods. “Well, there’s always next year.”

“So – what brings you here?” He is aiming for a change of conversational direction and an attitude of casual barely-there near-interest.

She chuckles: a rich vibrato in her white throat. “This is my commute: I work at The Citz. Publicity department.”

Daniel is surprised into over-enthusiasm. “Wow, really? That sounds great!”

There is a reprise of the throaty laugh. “It is, ” she agrees. Then, her voice a friendly challenge: “Where did you think I went every day? Basket weaving?”

They both stare ahead. Daniel cannot give voice to the truth, that he has never given any thought at all to where she was going, plucky sassy Leeanne in her shocking pink Doc Martens and wheelchair.

Her voice drops softly into his abashed silence. “Still no luck, eh?”

He brazens out the moment. “Nah. But – we are not downhearted.”

“Well, naturally,” she colludes. “Good man.”

Then, suddenly and inexplicably, he folds. “Shit, Leeanne. Where am I going wrong? I mean – I’m presentable, am I not?”

She nods.

“I’m articulate…” She nods again.

“I’m well-prepared, well-informed, I listen actively and empathically…”

“I don’t doubt it,” she says sombrely.

“I’m clever! Educated! Competent!” Daniel notes with some embarrassment his rising whine but cannot stop himself – “I mean, it’s not as if I’m – ”

Disabled, is what he was going to say.

“Disabled?” Leanne supplies, kindly and unperturbed.

He lowers his comely head in sheepish confirmation.

Leanne’s white throat lets forth another of its seductive chuckles, and then she leans in to him, still smiling:

“Oh but you are, Danny boy. Haven’t you heard? This is a woman’s world.”

A DAY IN THE LIFE

What everyone fails to realise is that it’s really quite exhausting, living at close quarters with celebrity.  People always assume it must be such fun: the constant whirlwind, the behind-the-scenes stories – but it’s not all plain sailing, let me tell you.

Take today.  I’ve got the pair of them in here with me, getting ready for The Big Event.  Let’s be clear: I’m talking really big here.  Global.  You’d think they’d be excited.  Well, to be fair I think they probably are excited, it’s only that they can’t really afford to show it.  That’s certainly one drawback to fame:  you’re always having to hold back on emotion, rein in the self-expression.  Spontaneity would be a faux pas on the PR front, I’m guessing.  Well, I’m saying that in their case, of course.  Maybe it’s different with others in the public eye..  Maybe not.  I’m no expert, you understand.

Anyway, here we all are in this over-stuffed and somewhat stuffy room.  I mean, it’s big enough, as rooms go; I’ve no issue with the size of it myself, but despite the ample dimensions, it’s oppressive, that’s all I’m saying.  And I’m not the only one saying it:  herself has just complained (again) about the heat.

I’m all prickly!  Those are her exact words and you don’t have to be up close to hear her:  that voice of hers carries, I can tell you.  I know you wouldn’t think it from when you see her out and about – but then you hardly ever hear her talk, do you?  Not in public, I mean.  Know what I’m saying?  Everybody knows what she looks like, of course.  But how many of you have actually heard her speak?  Maybe it’s because she can’t be arsed.  But she’s letting rip in here today, make no mistake.

I’m all prickly, you deaf old bastard!  She adds that extra bit for emphasis and indeed it seems to fall on himself’s deaf ear.  He’s good at the deaf ear thing, I’ve noticed.  Himself is looking a tad frazzled too, if truth be told.  It can’t be easy, getting ready for a big global event, even for a man of his experience.  It’s possible in fact, isn’t it, that the job may even get harder with the years?  He certainly looks like a man who’d rather stay at home:  he’s still in his dressing gown and slippers.

Oh for pity’s sake open a window.  He says this not in a way I’d describe as testy, more as a man worn down by obligation.  He smells of cologne and our proximity irritates him suddenly; he bats us away, Mr Harrold and myself, with a weary, liver-spotted backhand stroke.

Open a window, he says!  She repeats his words, aiming them at us.  It’s embarrassing, that, when there you are, doing your best to be invisible and a main player drags you against your will into the action of the piece.  Open a window!  Well, why didn’t I think of that?  She’s getting a bit shrill now.  Let’s just do that, shall we, and WRECK my hairdo?  Luckily, I’ve been here long enough to know the etiquette:  I follow Mr H’s example and remain devoid of expression.  Never side.  Never offer a point of view. Just go about your business as if nothing’s been said.

Take a paracetamol, my love.  He’s never been one for the subtleties of a situation.

Herself’s gone off on one now.  It’s the stress of it all.

A paracetamol?  A parabloodycetamol?  Are you advocating conventional medicine all of a sudden?  In her agitation, she directs an inexpert slap at me: wouldn’t do to take it personally, best just to back off.

Oh GOD, I wish it were all over.  It’s all right for you – you’re not the one under constant bloody scrutiny.  No-one’s going to write anything about your hair.  Or what you’re wearing.  She pauses here to bestow upon him her speciality sneer.  Which is just as well.  

He shows not the slightest reaction.  You’ve got to admire the will power.  As Mr H might postulate:  what causes the stiffness in the upper lip?  The hard wire.

Oh yes, it’s all very well for you! “Morning Coat or Lounge Suit” – 

Don’t forget “Dress Uniform”, my sweet. The groom’s wearing Dress Uniform.  Though I do believe the wombat’s not.  Himself sighs; he’s having a little private moment of reverie, I’d say.  But back to his wife he dutifully comes.

Darling – he opens his arms wide to her, revealing the rumpled garments beneath; unmoved, she stays put in the middle of the room.  He lowers his arms and the velvet flaps of his dressing gown swish shut like theatre curtains.  You look… – he’s weighing his options here – positively radiant.  Truly elegant;  it’s a lovely cut and the colour is perfect.  And your hair is absolutely splendid.  If you ask me, it’s a pity to cover it up with the hat…though –  he adds with prudent haste – the hat too is… a triumph.

She should be mollified, but no.  It’s the endless speculation, the stupid cruelty of it.  Now they’re having a field day about the poor girl’s father!  His mental health problems.  His political views.  Whether or not he’s ever thumped his ex-wife. Oh! I feel dreadful for her and her mother.  Really I do.  But can I say so?  Can I express the slightest teensy bit of sympathy or compassion?  Again, she attempts to appeal to myself and Mr H.  Again we remain impassive.  As Mr H would say: protocol protects. 

She has no choice but to answer herself.  No.  I cannot.  Because it would simply be like  – like a slab of meat thrown to starving dogs, fought over, torn to shreds, twisted, distorted, unrecognisable within seconds.

Himself smiles now – clearly he rather likes this image.  That’s the stuff, darling!  You’re learning!  Now, Harrold and I will retire to the attire, hmmm?  And here Mr H inclines his handsome head and they adjourn.  

I watch her watching them and – you’ll no doubt be sceptical here – I can see her loneliness.  Yes, yes, she’s surrounded by luxury and there’s no question that theirs is a happy marriage, even if we’re having a bit of an off-day.  Yes, she has her every material need met. But  – scoff as you will – I do have a bit of a nose for sadness and insecurity.  I’d go so far as to say she’s fighting back tears.  She senses my inspection; she looks directly at me and says Well?  What are you looking at?

Naturally, I am appalled.  Mr H and himself are elsewhere.  The protocol does not present itself.  I stay still and silent, just as Mr H has taught me.  It’s all right for you, she goes on, still eyeballing me.  You don’t have to suffer the endless round of dinners and galas and awards ceremonies and charities and trusts, do you? Travel up and down the bloody country cutting red ribbons and being nice to children assaulting you with posies.  The endless autographs!  And now selfies, God help us!  You don’t have to go to this bloody wedding and be judged by the entire bloody world.  And always, always to be found wanting. Too ugly.  Too heavy. Too old.  Too – too late.  You can’t imagine what it’s like.  To have no-one – no-one  fighting your corner.  Ever.

There’s no arguing with that, is there?  I lower my eyes in humble acknowledgement, although I know she won’t notice. She goes to the fireplace and with not a little difficulty even with the long-handled shoe horn dons the pale grey low-heeled courts.  Grunting gently, she straightens up and for several moments the two of us contemplate her reflection in the overmantel.  Of course I would not presume to know her thoughts, so it’s lucky she voices them.

Come now, Mills.  It’s not as if you didn’t know what you were signing up to. 

 To my mind, she will present very well today:  himself is quite right about the outfit; the cut and colour are classically understated.  Even her hair looks age-appropriate; she’s left the trademark flicks and feathers to the creation she’s going to set on top.  It’s quite something, that hat.  In fact, the little air current occasioned by the return of himself is enough to set it trembling.

The sight of him in his impeccably tailored grey ensemble with her rose in his buttonhole seems to have a restorative effect upon her humour; or perhaps she has given herself a stern talking-to in the mirror whilst my mind was momentarily elsewhere..  At any rate, she rushes carefully – no doubt on account of the new shoes –  to embrace him.  I move pre-emptively out of the way.

Gorgeous, gorgeous they coo to each other.

Will I do, pumpkin? His face is flushed.  Can he really be nervous?

Do me up, will you? She is smiling at him, holding out to him the most splendid of her many pearl chokers.

Mr H reappears now, carrying a small silver tray bearing two coupes de champagne.  He tuts at me which, frankly, is hurtful, given that I have been all morning at pains to maintain a discreet distance.

The celebrity couple suddenly have eyes only for each other.  They say – I fancy – cheers to each other in Welsh. They smile and tilt back their privileged heads and swallow.

Good luck walking her down the isle.  I take back what I said about that before:  it’s a lovely gesture.

Thank you.  Did you notice the rose?  He pats the bloom gently.

I did, my darling.  D’you have your speech safe?

He peels back the silk lining and nods.  We’ll bugger off early as poss from Frogmore, eh?  Get back here at a sensible hour?

Oh, yes please.  Goon Show to finish things off?

They kiss briefly and make to leave the room.  Her voice off exclaims Oh shit!  My hat!  I know it’s foolhardy but the feathery allure is too great.  I alight for a blissful moment; it feels like cloud underfoot.  Then she’s back and she shoos me away but not before I respectfully excrete just a little on the dreamy palest pink plumage of the crown.  From the safety of the ceiling I see them leave for Windsor, the poor heir and his second rate second wife.  I tell you:  all that tension, all that drama – is it any wonder I drink?  I make for the shallow amber pools they’ve left behind.  And  you say you’d love to be a fly on the wall?  Don’t make me laugh.