Sunday, 16 August 2015

Actual Size

Mackay, Me, Jay, David, Sally, Sally's tit, Dillie, Hatchet faced mermaids

I have just arrived in Edinburgh and am sat in the vast kitchen of the house on Albany street that 

David, Mackay, Jay and Spud the dog have taken residence of for the month of August.
David is telling me about a show they'd been to see the previous night.
'There's this man moving about mid air and he has the most perfect body – and no tattoos which we thought made it even better really. The woman next to us is screaming her appreciation and we're all very impressed -
'You were screaming too,' Mackay interjects.
'I was just joining in,' David mutters. 'He really is quite godlike. And then the other performers join him on stage and we collectively pause. He's about four foot tall. I hear the woman next to me say 'Oh.''
They show me the flyer and point out the tiny perfect specimen. Over the course of the next couple of days a note is stuck under the image with the words 'Actual Size'.
It's hot and sunny in Edinburgh and everyone's suspicious. Based on last years experience I'd packed a winter wardrobe. No one really trusts that this weather will last and so we broadly ignore it and continue to wear our coats certain that it will rain at any moment.
Mackay and Jay
They have a number of guests who pop up for a few days here and there over the festival and in addition to me they currently have Jane Beese staying. I've met her a few times in passing over the years but this is really the first time we've ever spoken properly. She is a constant vision entirely clad in black (I don't know why but the black she wears is somehow blacker than usual blacks. Raven like.) Her lips are red and a vogue cocktail cigarette is elegantly draped in her fingers. Whilst clearly a very successful woman with an impressive career Jane's sole responsibility whilst visiting is to make a full cooked breakfast for everyone, every morning. She does so gracefully whilst sipping tea and frying individual eggs in a tiny one egg frying pan which she so loves that Jay actually makes a trip to Peter Jones to buy her one of her very own. Jay isn't as loud and dramatic as the rest of us. He quietly observes the madness and

is a sort of behind the scenes angel who keeps everything in the house running smoothly with constant trips to the shop for more tobacco, bacon and anything else anyone mentions even in passing. I spend a bit of time alone with him chatting and discover he's very funny and has a sort of light in him that makes you feel good just to be around.
The only chink in the house is the wifi which is running at dial up speed and intermittently sends David in to a giddy fit of rage. He holds court in the kitchen anchored behind his computer with an overflowing ashtray and a cup of tea or a screw driver that we have renamed The Jab - Johnson's All day Breakfast. He works, plays us music, chats and smokes whilst Mackay leans against the counter sipping coffee and making arid comments. We're a happy little group.
Jay and a dog that isn't Spud
After a couple of hours of catch up Mackay whisks me off to see Dillie Keane perform in The Cow. I hear her before I see her, she has the most recognisable voice. We go over to say hello and there's a quick hug and a 'drink later?' before I find a seat and watch the audience file in. I like that bit between pre show final checks and curtain up. Everything transforms in an instant and you're cocooned in the world that's been created for you for an hour or so. That's where the magic is. Dillie moves seamlessly from funny to tragic and back again. She sings a song towards the end about people of a certain age attempting adventurous sex and I see couples nudging each other in the audience “You do that.” She is performing without the rest of Fascinating Aida this year but she mentions them frequently and it feels as though Adele is with her watching the proceedings. Her accompanist, Gulliver, compliments her. He's posh and sweet and sings wistfully about the benefits of being a lesbian.
As soon as it finishes David is there telling me to hurry up if I need the loo because the next show is starting in minutes. We go in to The Box, a tiny space, to watch Alfie Brown do stand up. It's an intimate space and I spend the first five minutes sat rigidly with my bag clutched in front of me like a barrier but he's funny and charming and I soon forget how close he is and just enjoy his clever set.
We all head to The Abattoir for drinks afterwards. I've been given a pass to get in to these places. Well, actually it's the dogs pass as evidenced by the rather smart photo of him on it. I wave it at the man on the door and he stops me.
'That's Spud.'
'We're here together.'
'I see.'
I say we're here together but he has been completely ignoring me since I arrived. Until the third day when he starts licking my neck which I take as affection but turns out to be the most cursory foreplay before he tries to violently stick his penis in my ear. You get what you can.
I'm aware that I have a very blinkered view of the Fringe. People pore over the program, queue for tickets, look for a free space anywhere to sit and eat their wraps and drink their pints. I only go to see the shows David and Mackay are producing. I see them free of charge. I'm driven from place to place. I don't queue and I get to drink in the cordoned off little enclave set aside for artists and professionals. And that is absolutely fine by me. David and Mackay are so good at spoiling you that you quickly forget how privileged the position is and become vaguely shocked that your bed hasn't been made by some invisible force whilst you were out having fun. This is why I'm not allowed to have nice things all the time. I'm fairly certain I'd become a despot within weeks. I text my mother:
“Everything is splendid. I have my own room and a very comfy bed.”
She texts back:
“That's good. Pity no men to share it. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
I tell the others and they talk (a little too earnestly) about the possibility of getting mum up next year to do a show.
'Have you and your mum watched Grey Gardens together yet?' Mackay asks.
'Fuck off.'
It's my birthday the day after I arrive and despite my phone being broken I somehow receive an email from 'Weight loss surgery support' wishing me a Happy Birthday! This is followed quickly by another from 'Pre arranged Funeral Insurance.' I'm not feeling too celebratory by the time I roll down for breakfast (Pot of tea, 15 fags).
No one up here knows it's my birthday which I don't mind at all because, let's face it, they flew me up here and treat me like a queen. I'm already having the best birthday by virtue of location and company and I don't want for anything. Except possibly a martini at some point during the day.
But David finds out via Facebook pretty quickly, tells me I'm naughty and after a brief discussion with Mackay books us all a table at Ondine for supper.
I tell Mackay I feel a bit guilty about all this expense on my account to which he responds:
'Don't be a cunt. David loves any excuse for a celebration.'
Dinner is perfect. We have a private dining room and are joined by Jane, Dillie and Sally who is Stewart Lee's PR. I get my martini and am levitating with happiness. Dessert arrives and there are candles and Happy Birthday is sung.
Birthday dinner
I have a strange little moment when I remember finding a Fascinating Aida CD in the library aged about 14. I took it home and learned all the lyrics to Dillie and Adele's songs which I can still recall instantly. And here I am at 41 being sung Happy Birthday to by a group of lovely people including Dillie. 14. 41. Ha. I think I actually grab Dillie's arm and sing part of 'Saturday Night' which she tolerates graciously.
As we leave we notice a criminal piece of art on the wall. A huge and terrible painting of some very skinny mermaids thrusting their breasts out whilst staring at us with hatchet faces. We pose beneath it for a photo and it isn't until later when I upload it on to Facebook that I notice Sally has whipped out a tit in protest. It quickly spreads like wildfire on Facebook. Sally calls the following morning and speaks to Mackay.
'She says she took her tit out on the understanding that this was a private joke to be shared amongst intimate friends,' Mackay conveys.
'Tell her Graham Norton 'liked' it,' David says.
Mackay tells her and there's a seconds pause before he confirms:
'She says it's fine. Leave it up.'

Me and Mackay

The following day is David's party celebrating 25 years at Edinburgh. His friend Fiona hosts it at her house and we all dress up and make our way over to be greeted by young men brandishing cold champagne. A rumour quickly circulates that the hired chef is gorgeous and so in small groups we make excursions to 'admire the garden' which is only accessible through the kitchen. He is quite gorgeous but in a slightly 'actual size' sort of way.
Jay and I are hiding in the corner with an ashtray chatting when David sees us from across the room and subtly screams: 'Get up and Mingle!'
We both shoot up like Jack in the boxes and frantically throw ourselves at some guests. I take lots of photos and chat to people and it's a fab evening. About halfway through I notice most of the single women are 'admiring the garden' in a very blousy way.
David makes a speech in which he forgets to thank anyone he'd intended to thank but it's good and fun and everyone whoops and claps and raises a glass to the joy of it all.
The time, as always, flies by too quickly and now Richard and James have announced they'll be arriving the following day for a visit.
'Change your flight,' Mackay says.
'You have to stay,' David says. 'Jane is leaving and who the hell is going to make us breakfast?'
The flight is changed for the following day at great expense and I hear David say drily to Mackay:
'Perhaps it's time we got Thea her own Amex card...'
Richard and David
Mackay, Jay and Spud
Richard and James will arrive to a big lunch cooked by Jane. Whilst everyone is out doing other things I run the hoover around and over David who spends the entire time screaming 'Turn it off! Infernal noise! Bloody hell!' The boys arrive and James immediately sets about fixing the wifi whilst Jane cooks and we drink and exchange stories. Chicken is eaten, champagne drunk and the afternoon glides by in a hazy alcoholic blur of laughter. Mackay observes that I seem to have gay men secreted everywhere who host and indulge me. In fact he and David have been referring to me as: 'Around the world in 80 gays.'
The day before I leave Jay and Mackay take me and Spud for a walk up a lovely hill with views of all of Edinburgh and Arthur's Seat. It's hot and sunny and I'm so happy to still be there with them. Mackay knows a shocking amount about the history of Edinburgh and points out castles and streets and tells me about them.
Richard and James
We head back and I make breakfast for everyone. Richard who has been welcomed back in to the arms of inebriation after two years dry had gotten phenomenally drunk the previous evening and adopted an angry scotsman persona that was luckily caught on film and played back to him as he morosely tried to shovel bacon in to his mouth.
All too soon it's time to go home and I crawl to bed at 3am with an alarm on either side of my head to wake me for the taxi 2 hours later. I haven't gone to bed before 4am for the entire visit. Most people head off to bed by two and then there's just David and me in the kitchen talking for hours, listening to music, dancing with arms only, smoking endless cigarettes and having one more Jab before bed as the sun rises.
'This is my favourite bit,' I tell David.
'Me too,' he smiles. 'Now listen to this...'

Saturday, 27 June 2015



Mitch is not good. He's uncomfortable, his head hurts and the first thing he sees as he wrenches his eyes open is rain streaming horizontally along the window of the train. A train that he only vaguely remembers being bundled on to. He's too old for this.
'Where am I going?'
He's speaking to himself but notices a movement in his peripheral vision and turns his head.
A scrawny looking teenager is sat one row of seats away from him on the opposite side.
'What the fuck are you looking at, ginger?'
The boy turns away quickly and pretends to look out of the window. It's dark out there and all either of them can see is the rain pelting against the glass and their own sickly reflections under the light of the carriage.
'Where am I going?'
He's addressing the boy this time who turns, uncertain, and stares at a point just past Mitch's shoulder.
'Yeah, you,' Mitch clarifies.
The boy's voice is wobbly, like it's still breaking. He looks disjointed, a character from The Beano that's been thrown aside unfinished.
'Why the FUCK am I going to Scotland?'
Mitch is talking to himself again but the boy isn't quick minded.
'Because you're on the sleeper to Inverness.'
'The what?'
The boy just stares at him nervously.
Mitch pulls himself up and staggers down the carriage towards the toilets. He locks the door and takes a leak before examining himself in the mirror. There's a graze on his right cheek. He splashes some water on his face and uses the edge of his coat to dry himself. He fumbles around in his pockets, finds half a pack of B&H and a lighter. He smokes one in three deep drags before flushing the butt and staggering back down the carriage to his seat.
The kid's still there, cheap trainers resting on the seat opposite, hood pulled down over his face and arms tightly crossed.
The train pulls in to a station, dark and deserted. The digital display tells him he's in Stirling and it's 4.55am.
He should get off but he'd be soaked and where would he go? He sits back down and starts going through his pockets methodically.
Fags. Lighter. Ticket stub. Inverness. One way. Fuck. Eight twenty pound notes folded neatly in his breast pocket. Keys. No wallet. The latest in a long line of pay as you go disposable mobiles that feel like toys in his hands. In Mitch's line of work it didn't pay to have a contract phone. He binned and replaced every couple of weeks. Safer that way. He has a text message from Dave.
He checks his calls from yesterday. Two outgoing, Dave and John. One incoming. John.
He remembers those. Plans to meet at the pub at noon for an all day bender. John's call asking him where he was. He'd gone to the wrong pub, had a few there before heading to the right one in Euston. Eight of the boys had been there, all getting hammered for John's 43rd which no one thought the fucker would live to see. Mitch's brain slowly filters information. He'd been pissed when he showed up. He'd bought a round on his card. He'd had his wallet at the first pub. He'd lost it somewhere between the second and third. Mikey had started paying for his drinks. After that it's just pictures, moments, the odd word. A kebab. A kebab lying in the gutter and Mitch staring at it from a close vantage. Someone pushing his head in to the road. The sound of music muffled nearby. A girl shouting. Sirens. Then nothing. Then this.
He tries to call Dave anyway, finds he has no credit and the piece of shit phone is almost out of battery. He switches it off to save what remains and for want of anything better to do, curls up on his seat as best he can, and sleeps.
Dave is slapping him in the face.
'Mitch! Wake up! Sir!'
'Get off me you cunt!' Dave swings for him and nearly falls off his seat.
A ticket inspector is staring at him balefully.
'Last stop, sir.'
His accent makes the statement sound like an insult.
Mitch pulls himself up and glances out of the window. Inverness Station.
He glances over to the seats opposite but the kid is gone.
'Last stop -'
'Yeah. What's the time?'
'It's 8.41am, sir.'
'Oh. Not 8.42 am then? Or 8.39?'
The ticket inspector's nostrils flare slightly but he says nothing and Mitch, tired of being pissed off, stands and heads for the exit.
Outside the station entrance is a statue and he stands by the railing and lights a fag. It's still drizzling and the sky is grey. As a kid he'd always wanted to come to Scotland. He can't remember why. Probably because it was far away and one of the only things Mitch remembers about being a kid was wanting to be far away from where he was. An image of his dad rises in his memory and he pushes it down and lights a second fag off the burning embers of the first. The rain's getting heavier again and he glances about, sees a cafe open and heads for it.
He sits outside under the canopy at a plastic table with a plastic menu and waits. No one comes and after five minutes he turns and looks through the glass front at the counter. The woman's just stood there. He gets up and strolls in.
'Can I get a cup of tea?'
The woman nods.
'One pound sixty five please.'
He pulls a note out of his little stash and hands it to her.
'And a bacon sandwich.'
She nods again.
'Four pound seventy five please.'
He waits for a minute uncertain.
'I'll bring it out,' the woman says. 'Go and sit.'
He does as he's told and is in the process of lighting another fag when he sees the boy hanging around by the statue looking awkward. He's getting wet, his shoulders are hunched and despite the rain falling steadily he makes no move to find shelter.
There's a fucking bus stop right opposite you little bastard!
Clearly the kid isn't psychic.
The woman brings out his tea and sandwich and Mitch mumbles his thanks.
He starts eating but the kid is distracting him, putting him off. He sighs and puts down his buttie.
The kid ignores him.
'OI! Shit for brains!'
The kid turns and sees him. Mitch beckons him over and the kid looks around to check that it's him being addressed. Mitch rolls his eyes.
'Yeah, you! No one else is stood in the rain like a muppet. Come here.'
The kid hesitates for a moment then walks over and stands shivering in front of him with his hands buried in his jean pockets.
'Got any money?'
The boy shrugs.
Mitch feels pity for the kid though he mistakes it for irritation.
'Sit down, you're doing my head in.'
The kid pulls out the plastic chair and stares at Mitch's sandwich.
Mitch pushes the plate towards him.
'D'you want that?'
'Suit yourself.'
'I'll have a cuppa though.'
'Cheeky little shit.' Mitch smiles for the first time that day.
He gets the kid a tea and offers him a fag.
'No thanks.'
'What are you doing up here?'
The kid shrugs and puts four sugars in his mug.
'If you shrug one more time I'm going to rip your fucking arms off.'
The kid freezes mid shrug and deliberately and slowly lowers his shoulders.
'How old are you?'
'Bullshit. How old are you?'
Mitch reckons he could easily shave another year off that but he doesn't care enough to press it.
'Won't your mum be wondering where you are?'
There's a certainty in the boy's voice that Mitch knows all too well.
'So you just thought you'd hop on the overnight to Inverfuckingness then.'
A smile tugs at the boys mouth but never gets purchase.
'Wannaseetheloch,' he mumbles.
'Wanna what?'
'Wanna see the Loch.'
'What Loch?'
'Loch Ness.'
'Where the monster lives?'
He starting to think the kid is even younger than he'd guessed.
'Is that round here then?'
The boy nods.
'How far?'
Mitch sighs.
'Right, well good luck with that.'
He stands and the kid looks momentarily frightened.
'Where are you going?'
'Paper shop to get some credit on my phone and some fags. Is that alright with you?'
The kid says nothing but continues to stare at Mitch.
'You can't come with me.'
Still the kid just stares.
'I can't be wandering around with a kid in tow. People will think I'm a nonce.'
'Or they'll think I'm your son.'
'Fuck that!'
Mitch starts walking off.
'Good luck looking for your monster.'
He doesn't look back though he feels the kid's eyes boring in to his skull.
Can't be taking responsibility for some fucking runaway. Christ knows what's on his heels. Nothing good. They're all lost causes those ones. Remember them from care. Rat like eyes, older than their years. Hunched and hunted. They get fucked up good and young and they're walking time bombs after that. He should know. You should know, Mitch.
He stops. Fuuuuuck. He turns and checks and sure enough the kid is sat there looking at him with huge pathetic eyes. Shit biscuit.
He inclines his head very slightly and the kid jumps like he's on springs and bounds after him.
They walk to the newsagents in silence and Mitch notices the kid has to hop slightly to keep up with him.
A man with a turban stands behind the counter smiling at him. Mitch buys a couple of packs of B&H, two cans of lager and some crisps.
'D'you want anything?'
'No I'm alright, thanks.'
Mitch nods and turns back to the shop owner.
'How do we get to Loch Ness?'
He feels the kid practically vibrating next to him.
'You need to get bus.'
The man points over the road.
'Number 19 for Fort William.'
'How long does it take?'
'About an hour,' the man shrugs.
'Bus stop number two.'
They leave the shop and Mitch forces himself to look at the kid who is staring at him with something close to wonder.
'Do you ever fucking blink?'
The kid bites his lip.
'We going to Loch Ness then?'
His voice is quiet, like he daren't hope for good news.
'Why not,' Mitch says. 'Sod all else to do today.'
He watches the kid visibly relax and wonders what's going through his head.
He lights the last fag from his old pack and tosses the empty carton on to the street as they walk over to bus stop number two.
'So, you got a girlfriend?' Mitch knows the answer but he asks anyway.
'Good luck getting one with that carrot top.'
'Piss off.'
Mitch laughs and the kid almost smirks.
'How old are you really?'
'You're tall for your age aren't ya.'
'Yeah, I get mistaken for older.'
'You do the booze runs then yeah?'
'Booze, fags, weed.'
'Weed is it? When I was your age I was sniffing glue like any normal thug.'
The kid shrugs, rubs his nose.
'I deliver it.'
Oh yeah? Deliver it or sell it?'
'Nah, just run it.'
'That's your job is it?'
The kid nods.
'Pay well?'
The number 19 bus pulls up and they climb aboard.
'Two for Loch Ness,' Mitch says and feels a sudden urge to laugh.
'You'll be wanting two for Urquhart Castle,' the driver says.
'Will I?'
'It's a twenty minute walk from the ruins.'
Mitch pays for the tickets and wanders to the back where the kid has claimed a window seat.
As he sits he realises he didn't get credit for his phone and finds he doesn't care. He's stuck here for now. Dave told him not to call and whatever he does have to tell him won't be good judging by his current situation. Sod it. He's having a day off. Mitch is taking a day off from the relentless shit storm that is his life. And he's doing it in the company of a scrawny ginger drug running teenager. He'd have preferred a brunette with a good rack but that's life for you. Ah well. Mitch has never had a holiday.
They sit looking out of the window as the town centre gives way to country and rolling mist covered hills in the distance. Neither one has seen a landscape like this close up before nor do they know that they share a longing, like home sickness, for a place that they've never been to before.
'Why Loch Ness?' Mitch asks tearing open the pack of crisps.
The kid says nothing for a minute, just looks at the mountains.
'I saw a picture in a book,' he says eventually.
'What, like a story book? Picture of big Nessie swimming about?'
The boy frowns like he's talking to an idiot.
'Nah. A picture. A photo.'
'You seen that film, Highlander?'
Mitch thinks.
'The one with Sean Connery? There can be only one?'
'Yeah, that one. I wish I'd lived then.'
'That's a fucking old film. Why d'you watch that?'
'My granddad had it on one of them old tapes.'
'Yeah,' the kid nods. 'He was a right dinosaur. Didn't even know what a DVD was.'
Mitch snorts.
'When I stayed with him he'd put it on and give me a pack of chocolate biscuits and a bottle of coke and go to the pub.'
'How old were you?'
'Five. Six, maybe.'
Mitch thinks of his own dad throwing him across the room at the telly before fucking off to the pub.
'Nice to get biscuits and coke eh.'
'Yeah. I liked staying at his.'
'Dead is he?'
'What about your mum and dad?'
The kid says nothing and they spend the rest of the journey staring out of the window at the past.

They get off the bus and Mitch has barely gotten his fags out of the carrier bag before the kid is running full pelt towards the castle.
'It's like the one in Highlander!'
Mitch looks up and feels his chest tighten. It's stopped raining and as he stands there the clouds part and a ray of sunshine illuminates the ruins. For a moment the Loch is indistinguishable from the sky and the castle floats in mid air like a vision from a childhood dream. Not his childhood, nor the kid's. But some other child who wasn't the lottery loser of fate, bad genes and geography.
He lights his fag and walks slowly up to meet the kid who has now stopped running and is turning slowly on the spot, his face tilted up toward the sun, his red hair like fire in the light.
His chest is getting tighter and he vaguely wonders if he's having a heart attack. An image of the kebab lying in the gutter flashes in to his mind and he shakes his head to dispel it. The kid is watching him.
'What you staring at?'
'I'm not staring. I'm just seeing you.' He smiles, crooked and clear.
Mitch doesn't know what to say. He feels a sudden urge to cry. He hasn't done that since he was twelve.
'Shall we have a look around first?' The kid says.
Mitch nods, swallows and lets the kid take the lead.
They walk around the ruins dappled in the warm glow of the sun. The place feels alive and some corner of Mitch's brain, the clever bit he hides away, thinks that 'ruins' is the wrong word for this. He remembers a lyric “There's a crack, a crack in everything. That's where the light gets in.” It folds over and over in his head until it's just the image of light.
'What's that?' The kid asks pointing to a flowery shrub crawling around the wall.
'I don't know,' Mitch says. He wishes he knew its name more than anything. He wants to tell the kid what it is, where it's from, why it's here. It's too late for all that now.
'It all goes together really nice doesn't it.' The kid is staring at the view. Sky, water, grass, castle. 'It hums.'
Mitch feels a wave of fear. That's normal. He let's go of it like he should have let go of a thousand things in his life.
The kid's talking but Mitch can't concentrate. Something in him is shifting and his minds eye flitters between the beauty of the ruins around them and the horror of the ruins behind.
'I need to sit down, kid.'
The kid leads him to a spot on the grass facing the Loch. Mitch pulls out the cans of beer and hands one to the kid before opening his own.
They stare at the view as Mitch sips and the kid waits. He can't look at him.
'I was at my mate's birthday drinks,' Mitch says. 'We'd been drinking all afternoon. Properly on it. We'd got kicked out of the first place and were getting pretty rowdy at the next pub when Mikey decides we all need to chill out a bit if we're going to make it through the evening. He calls his man and gives him the address of the pub. We do some more shots and forty five minutes later you rock up.'
He can feel him sat there nodding. He glances sideways, shyly almost. The kids red hair is haloed by the sun and he glows.
'Mikey only had cards on him, fucking idiot. So I paid you cash. Took the piss out of your hair then too didn't I. Yeah. Made you have a shot if I remember rightly? Yeah, that's it. So, you nicked my wallet. Got your own back. Didn't realise till well after you'd gone. Sneaky little...'
The kid laughs but it catches in his throat.
'We smoked some, got much more pissed. Moved on to the next place, then another. I didn't know what the fuck was going on by the time we got to that last place. Dave's holding me up and I'm talking shit. He says we need some food. Get something in us before the next leg. I mean, the man's a fucking alcoholic but he knows his shit.'
Mitch stops and puts his hand on his chest. It feels like a vice is being tightened with every breath he takes.
'Go on,' the kid says.
'So. So, I'm waiting outside with John and a couple of others, it's busy, big queue. And I look up and there's you. Coming out of the shop, bold as brass with a kebab in one hand and my fucking wallet in the other. Putting my change back in my wallet you cheeky little git.'
Mitch tries for a laugh but that's not what comes out.
'You didn't clock me coming till it was too late did you. You looked up and recognised me and then I had you by the throat.'
He nods to himself. Regret flitters past.
'I pulled you out of the doorway and your kebab went flying. And I punched you. Once. I only punched you once.'
'In the head.'
He puts his can down and locks his fingers together to stop them shaking.
'You went down like a sack of shit. Your head hit the curb.'
'The edge of the curb.'
'Yeah, the edge of the curb. And then blood was pouring out of you. So fast. You blinked at me. You had this look on your face.'
They sit in silence for a moment. The kid sniffs, the sound of snot and tears.
'Someone, Dave I think, gets me on the ground. Holds me down. He thought I was going to hit you again. I can't see you. Just your kebab lying in the gutter. The volume gets louder, a girl is screaming. Someone calls an ambulance. It's all noise. I couldn't see you. And then it went black.'
They look at the Loch, at the sky.
'You forgot a bit,' the kid says. 'About when we met.'
Mitch knows. He nods.
'I suppose I was passed out when Dave put me on the train eh. Sent me as far away as he could. Trying to be a mate I suppose. He knew that ambulance wasn't coming soon enough eh.'
'The bit about when we met, Mitch.'
Mitch swallows and nods.
'Yeah. I know. Jamie. It's Jamie.'
The boy wipes his face on his sleeve.
'Your name is Jamie and you lived for a while. Fuck. Not long enough. And you had a story to tell. A shit story with a bad start. But you were young enough to hope it would get better-'
'It was sad wasn't it.'
'-and I took it away.'
He forces himself to turn and look at him.
'I see you. You mattered.'
He turns away.
'I don't have the words.'
'Can I go now, Mitch?'
'Yeah. Course you can. Run along. I'll sit here for a bit, take in the view. I won't be far behind.'
He feels something like a sigh wrap itself around him and then, finally, let go.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

You Won't Have Time To Cook Lover


I thought Romany meant they were from Rome. I didn't really understand what was going on. For the first fifteen years of my life I am in Malta and then I'm somehow seventeen with a small child living on a gypsy encampment in Cambridge.'
'How did you end up there?'
Ah well. Your dad was in the navy. He had married me and brought me to England and we were living with his father. He had lodgers. A woman and her husband. And their boy who I think was autistic. She was lovely, Bridgette. Glass eye. I didn’t like it there. I wanted my own somewhere. You know? He didn’t have a TV. We would listen to the radio by the fire. That was okay though. He said to me one day, “You’re not happy here are you? Come with me.”
'I didn’t know where we were going. The only place we ever went was to his sister and she wouldn’t speak to me. Nor her husband. Nor her son. They didn’t like foreigners. I would have to sit there in silence till it was time to go. Horrid woman. But, you know, it was his sister.
He walks me across the road to this campsite where the gypsies lived and he knocks on a door and an old woman, Nanny Annie, comes out smiling and says, “Ah, you’re going to love your new home.”
I have no idea what is going on. Granddad and her take me to this caravan.
I bought it for you,” he says. “Do you like it?”
He paid forty pounds for it.
I move in and they all come, all of them, with presents and food.
You’ve got a little chavi,” they say.
I say, “No. His name is Sean.”
The first night they sent four girls about my age. Seventeen, eighteen.
We’ve come to keep you company cos it’s your first night and we don’t want you to be lonely.”
They brought biscuits and cakes. I made endless pots of tea. In those days we used loose tea you know. We smoked ourselves stupid until three in the morning talking, telling me how they lived. At the beginning I was more friends with the younger people.
A year I was there till Albie knocked on the door. “They’re moving us on. They’re tearing the site down and building houses here.”
I didn’t understand. This was my home.
We’re gonna have to move. Don’t worry, we’ll tow you. Wrap your ornaments in blankets and put them in the cupboards.”
We moved up the hill to Fen Road. There was a railway track, a river and a big empty site. They parked the vans in a circle and put mine right by the tap, so I just had to open my door to get water. We had outdoor taps and gas bottles. We had these little gas lights, like cobwebs really. But when you lit them they were brighter than electricity.
So, then one night, late, one in the morning, I hear this tap tap at the door. And then scuffling. I call out, “Who’s there?” I hear back, “Your husband.”
I open the door and four men in their boxers are holding your Dad. Arms pulled behind his back, head held back by his hair. He’s so red. He’s trying to punch them all but he can hardly move. Stood there in his navy uniform. He looked like James Dean, your father.
Do you know him?” Kelly asked.
Yes! He’s my husband.”
They let him go and pat him on the back.
Okay, in you go. We’re going to bed.”
And off they go in nothing but their pants. It was a hot summer.
He would stay a month. Then he would be gone for three. Mostly to Iceland. One time he came back and your brother would have nothing to do with him. Kept pushing him away.
He doesn’t know you,” I said.
Okay, when I finish my ten years I won’t sign on anymore. I won’t have my son growing up not knowing me.”
Six months later he finished his commission and that was that. I sometimes wish he’d stayed in the navy. Sean would have gotten older, understood, and looked forward to seeing him. And your Dad, he hated the building sites. There was more snow in the 60’s it seemed. No security and so cold.
Anyway. The next morning at six am, your father is sleeping, and the men come and bang on the door. I open up and they march in and start shaking dad. They give him a bottle of rum, a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of this, a bottle of that. Then they pull their hair at the front, even the ones without hair, it’s a greeting, a welcome. And then they march out again. Dad is lying there stunned. After a moment he shouts, “What the FUCK is going on?”
They are gypsies,” I say. “They are making you welcome.”
If they’ve got something to give you they walk in and out. They don’t make themselves comfortable unless invited.
Dad went out to explore the site. I watched. They were all patting him on the back. He made friends there. You know he didn’t like people. They’d reassure him that they were looking after me.
We used to laugh. Dad did impressions of them.
They were always stealing of course. But if the police or social services came to the gate – any official car – they’d let all the dogs loose. They were so trained. They would go out and form a forward facing circle and wait. Big Alsatians. I used to tell your brother not to go near them but they never touched children. They never would. Kelly, Pat’s husband, he said to me, “If one touched a child we would bury it alive.”
I never saw a cat. They didn’t find them interesting.
Zack and Albie roasted a chicken and brought it round. “Here, you won’t have time to cook lover.”
The way they do things. A chicken meant a lot.
We were so low on luck at that time that your father would go off walking for miles to find a farm and steal a chicken. He would be crawling on his stomach trying to catch one and break its neck before the others started making a racket. He'd come back exhausted and dishevelled with one, sometimes two, chickens. I would quickly pluck them and boil them with whatever vegetables the gypsies had given us. I wrapped the feathers in newspaper and hid them in the bottom of the bin. Your brother was about two then, maybe three. He would sit round the big camp fire with them and eat hedgehog. I'd say to your dad, “He's eating Hedgehog!” And he would say “It's good. It'll do him no harm.” It didn't do him any harm.
We lived on that camp for three years. 1960 to '63 I think. So, we had nothing. The snow was up to here.'
Mum points to a place near her chest that on anyone else would be their waist.
'Your father had gone looking for work whilst he was on leave like he did every day. Walking, walking. I was playing with your brother when this delivery arrived. Two huge tea chests. You know how big a tea chest is? Huge. Well, they are from your grandmother, from your dad's mum. She has had them shipped to us all the way from the Maldives. They wouldn't fit in the caravan. I open the first one and it is full, full to the brim with loose tea leaves! Then I read the note on the top. It says “Search through the leaves.”
I start sifting through them. There are two rings for Dad and I, with that stone they have there, you know? It's black with engraving on it? Anyway. Silver bands. Lovely. And then I'm pulling out money. Loose notes. Notes! I couldn't believe it. I opened the second chest and this one is filled up, right up to the brim with tins. Tinned everything you can imagine. A whole chicken in a tin. Even tinned butter. A ham. Spam. I filled the cupboards. I cooked a proper meal. Your father came home and he had found some work doing night shifts in a bakery. When I showed him what his mother had sent he just sat down and cried.
There was another woman on the site who wasn't a gypsy. Pat. She didn't have their mentality. Her husband beat her up. She was so beautiful. I would see her dragged in to the caravan, shouting, it was horrible. When he drank. Then they would come out the next day, she with a black eye and they would be all happy, normal. She was so in love with him. She couldn't have children. She wanted one so much. So he got another woman pregnant and gave her money so Pat could raise the child. Pat didn't mind that he did that. She was so happy. But it has a sad ending. I'll tell you later.
Pat taught me a lot. She would explain what was going on. I was so young and so bewildered by everything in England. You should have seen their funerals. So elegant. Everyone in black. They would build this room where the body would lie for a week. So much money would be spent. Then they would get roaring drunk and fight and destroy each others caravans. I would lock myself in. The next day they would be out there helping each other to rebuild things, fix things. Everything fine again. I said to Pat, “Why do they do it?” She said, “It's how they are. That's how they let off steam.” It was the same with the weddings. They buy the couple a new caravan, all in cash, always cash, they fill it with everything they need. And the best. Crown Derby. Then after the wedding, when they had been drinking for hours around the fire Pat would say, “Time to lock yourself in.” And I'd watch through the window as they destroyed the new caravan, tore it apart. Broke everything. The next day, yes, a new caravan, new things. Everything fine again.
I did some jobs with them. They took me along to make a little money. One was billing. We'd have all these flyers to deliver door to door. Pat and I would travel somewhere quite far away and deliver to a few streets then Pat would shove the rest, huge piles of flyers in to a bin and say “Sod this for a lark, let's go to the pub.” We had to deliver a few so some people would show up for the sales.'
She laughs, head thrown back.
'And tatering, that was the other job. Potato picking. The first time I went I left your brother with one of the gypsy women. They showed me how to hold the basket between my thighs and follow behind the tractor. As the potatoes were turned over and up out of the soil we would gather them. We would all end up with tater legs. You know? Bow legged from the basket. Afterwards we went to a supermarket and the people sneered at us. They whispered; “Bloody Gypo's”. I said “I'm not a bloody Gypo!” We would be covered in mud from the field. When we got back the woman told me your brother had run away. I grabbed her top, “What do you mean he's run away? He's three!” I saw the river, the train track, I was going mad. “You haven't been looking for him?” I was raging with fear. She was cowering. Zack, he used to make this sucking noise with his mouth, a lot of them did it, it meant hey or yes or no. He made this noise and nodded towards the underneath of the caravan. “I spot a little chavi,” he said. Chavi is Romany for boy.
Your brother had been hiding. I said to him, “Why? What happened?” He told me she had shouted at him. She probably shouted at all the kids but your brother wasn't used to that. You know he was a little king. I told Zack I wasn't going tatering again. I couldn't leave your brother. He said we could just take him with us. I wasn't sure, you know, with tractors and all, but he said it was fine. He said, “Pack him a bag of toys.” We made him an area by the van and Zack dug him some ground to play with. He had his little tractor and some spades. At lunch we had sandwiches and a flask of tea. To your brother this was a big picnic. So much fun. They all loved him. One day the farmer asked if he could take him on the tractor with him. Oh, can you imagine. For a little boy it was so exciting. He sat on the farmers lap and held the wheel and believed he was driving. All the time he would say to me, “Mum, we goin' tatering' today?” He sounded like them too.
One of the women used to come and see me for a coffee. She would always say “Got a little whiskey to put in it?” I usually had a baby bottle of something. I didn't really drink then. I'd pour it in. She'd say, “Just tell me if you don't have any, I can always bring some.” She would read my palm. I was so confused in those days. I would be watching her thinking How can she see anything in my hand? What is she doing? She would nod and mutter and one time she said, “Ah your chavi is going to be ill. But it's okay, just a bad cold.” So of course then your brother gets flu. He was so unwell. They queued outside the caravan with baskets of fruit. With beautiful ribbons tied around them. “He'll be okay,” they'd say.
Your father too, he got very ill with this flu and the men all came. So many men came through the caravan that day. All with a bottle of some concoction, brandy and whiskey and lemon and so forth. Your father was taken aback. They never stayed. They would just come and say, “Drink it. I want the bottle back.” It was their way of making sure he took his medicine. They never took thank yous. They never made a fuss. In and out. Your father was paralytic by the time they were finished with him.'
'What about Pat and the baby?'
'Oh, that was such a sad story.'

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Bast and Bertie's

'I like your name. Love Sx'

That was the first of many emails I would receive from Bast over the following two years.

I only met him a handful of times but he was quite the gentleman of letters.
I had been helping Richard on an opera he was writing about the life of Anna Nicole Smith when my cousin called and invited me to an exhibition of Bast's paintings in Soho.
'There'll be lashings of Absinthe!' I'd never heard of him but she had me at 'lashings.'
I enjoyed the exhibition and I really enjoyed the steam punk contraption dribbling green liquor through strategically placed sugar cubes in to small glasses. But the real piece of art was Bast himself who arrived to much fanfare wearing a red sequinned suit, black hair spiked up, tall and very handsome. A crowd of people cocooned him and I watched at a distance as he made his way through the room acknowledging everyone individually with kindness and charm.
'He's a Dandy,' my cousin said.
'I didn't think they existed anymore.'
I never approached and after we left my cousin told me he had written an autobiography which had been recently published.
'I think you two would get along,' she said.
I bought a copy the following day and saw that it had been signed by the author:
'I'm good between the pages of this book but I'm even better between the sheets.'
Apparently if you can find a copy he hasn't signed it'll be worth an absolute fortune.
I devoured it in one sitting. It was hilarious and disturbing in equal parts. His world compared to mine was fearless and nihilistic. He painted, wrote, wore only the finest bespoke clothing, spent an absolute fortune on prostitutes, had an on off love affair with drugs and lived his life philosophically as a Dandy.
I wrote to my cousin: 'His life is fit for an opera.'
She forwarded him the email without my knowing and an hour or so later I received the first of many brilliant letters from him. He was excited about the idea of being an opera.
“The opera,” he wrote, “is when someone gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings.”
And he liked my name. I learned over time that he held a lot of stock in names. He was very fond of his own and always addressed me without abbreviation.
After a week or so he invited me to his home in Soho for tea. Ostensibly to talk about the opera.
“I live on Meard Street. Yes, Shit Street. Black bell. There's a sign on the door but don't believe everything you read.”
I knew from the book that he loved sunflowers and Quentin Crisp. I owned a first edition of Crisp's How To Become A Virgin and wrapped it in brown paper, bought a bunch of sunflowers and made my way over at the appointed time.
Once I was actually stood on his doorstep I was suddenly gripped with unease. His emails had never been less than utterly charming but the contents of his life made him appear like a wolf, someone dangerous to be alone with. I rang the bell. A moment later a head appeared through an upstairs window wearing a gigantic black top hat.
'Do come up!' The buzzer rang.
I walked in to find him resplendent in a three piece suit. Behind him a wall of shelves lined with human skulls, the floor beneath him covered neatly with newspaper reviews of his book and other sundries.
'What lovely flowers!'
'They're for you.' He had the grace to look pleasantly surprised, as though it wasn't screamingly obvious. I handed him the book.
'I thought you'd like this.'
He unwrapped it and looked suddenly very moved.
'How absolutely wonderful of you! You must sign it for me.'
That was the thing about Bast. He was clearly and always the brightest thing in the room and yet he made you feel as though it was you that provided the colour. You could judge him by the contents of his book but he did himself a disservice really. I think it was impossible to meet him in person and not love him. There are a million people I'm sure who were closer to him, knew him far better than I but we all knew what it was like to bask in his kindness. He was one of the few people I've met who really listened to you.
The flat was tiny but exquisitely decorated.
'Would you like a tour?'
I nodded toward the skulls.
'What's going on there then?'
'I collect them. Only ones with holes in – gun shot, trepanning, that sort of thing.'
He took the flowers in to his tiny kitchenette which looked as though it had never once been used. The idea of him stirring a pan was ridiculous.
His bedroom contained a tiny antique looking double bed that was too short for his tall figure.
'I sleep at an angle.'
On the bedside there was a small revolver.
'Is that loaded?'
'Yes. I keep it there because I'm a firm believer in safe sex.'
He goes on to tell me an hilarious anecdote in which he accidentally got shot with the damn thing.
'Pop it in a drawer would you, its making me nervous.'
He smiles and hides it.
'Shall we go out?' He asks.
We step out in to the sunny streets of soho and walk along to Madam Bertie's, a tea shop he frequents. Tourists stare but everyone else seems to know him and greet him affectionately. It's wonderful walking down the street with Bast and I'm relieved I had the presence of mind to wear my reddest lipstick.
As we sit ourselves down outside Bertie's to wait for our tea I notice two American tourists (fanny bags and sports caps) staring at him open mouthed from across the street. He seems oblivious but they're irritating me. Eventually they approach.
'Hey, why you dressed like that?'
Another thing about Bast. The moment you meet him you feel oddly protective of him. I want to tell them to fuck off but Bast, much lovelier than me, smiles and says 'Well, why ever not?'
They wander off looking confused and our tea arrives.
We talk about the opera. In August of 2000 he was preparing to do a series of paintings about the crucifixion. He traveled to the Philippines where an annual religious event took place in which you could be crucified yourself. You can watch Bast being crucified on youtube. I can't. As soon as I see them hammer the first nail through his hand I have to switch it off. I tell him that I have this image of the opera starting with him on the cross saying to the audience: 'You may well ask.' This makes him roar with laughter. We're getting on so well he suggests we pop to his favourite haunt, The Colony Rooms. It's one of those old parts of soho that now sadly no longer exists. Tiny, hedonistic and deeply eccentric. I drink red wine and he drinks nothing. He tells me that Tim Fountain is writing a play of his book, Stephen Fry wants the film rights and I can have the rights to the opera. Just like that. No business savvy at all.  He once wrote to me saying:
“Kindness is the only thing you can give without having.”
After about three glasses of red in which we talk about everything under the sun I state, in that tipsy declaratory way, that I believe he is the kind of man that separates women in to two categories: Sex and Mother Figures.
I say this because he asks me lots of questions. He looks uncertain and wants to know if I think he's right or wrong. I feel like a mother around him and I'm drunk. He lets my statement sit between us for a moment and then he leans over very slowly, sticks his nose in my neck and smells me.
'You're wearing Chanel,' he breathes. 'Delicious.' He leans back stares at me intently and says 'And what kind of man am I now, Alethea?'
A wolfish one, I think. And then it's gone. And the gentle, sweet, vulnerable Bast is back.
We part ways and I head home full of ideas for the opera. Richard asks to borrow my copy of his book. I say no.
'Don't be ridiculous I'll return it!'
'You'll lose it. You know what you're like.'
'I won't! Lend me the fucking book.'
I lend him the book. He loses it. At an airport.
The next time I speak to Bast I tell him and when we meet again he gives me another copy, this time inscribed personally.
He called me one evening whilst I was in a supermarket.
'Where are you, Alethea? I'm having a crisis of confidence.'
'I'm in Asda.'
'Oh my god, are you okay?'
Another few weeks pass and the three of us meet to discuss the opera at Bertie's and he and Richard hit it off fabulously. He wrote to me that night:
It didn’t surprise me that Richard and I got on. There are chains of beauty aren’t there? Me, You, Tim, Richard, David Johnson, Mr Fry … we are linked together like mountaineers heading for the summit of beauty. If you like someone I will like them and if I like someone you will like them. Aren’t we clever! I wish we could sleep with ourselves.”
Over the next two years we wrote frequently, saw each other rarely and he occasionally signed his letters off with:
'Where's my fucking opera you cunt? Lots of useless love, S x'
His book was being published in America and he flew out there with painted nails only to be held in customs for several hours before being put back on a plane to England on grounds of 'Moral Terpitude'. They'd googled him. “There is nothing worse, Alethea, than being rejected by a country you wouldn't be caught dead in.”
The play was opening in Soho and life became a whirl of activity but he always found the time to write and offer advice, kind words, hilarious anecdotes and great ideas.
On the night before the opening of the play he sent me a missive:
Darling. Bad news. I have got you a ticket for the show tomorrow. Will you come? Definitely. Sx”
I wrote back that I couldn't wait but that I was sure the actor wouldn't have an ounce of his beauty.
He responded: “That was the right thing to say. Flattery has to be pretty thick before I object.”
I saw him after the show and he put his hand on the small of my back, he always did that, and led me to Stephen Fry and made introductions because he remembered me saying how much I liked him. So thoughtful always.
Twenty four hours later he was dead and a horrible gaping wound was ripped into the fabric of life. Two weeks after that I sat and listened to Stephen Fry's eulogy. His funeral was packed. He had so many friends and he was so loved. I knew almost none of them, I was by no means a big part of his life. Soho felt abandoned and all those whose lives he'd poured colour and light into knew that it couldn't be replaced. Sometimes lovely things are just lost and there's nothing to be done.