It is a town of stone. The three main streets are wide, criss-crossed by wynds, lanes and alleyways, layered in cobble and pavement. St Salvator’s chapel steeple rises above the homes, shops and pubs that line the streets. The university permeates the town; its quadrangles and buildings start at its heart and spread throughout.
Local, student and pilgrim brace against the wind that whips through ruin, street and wynd. It comes like a flood, filling the ancient streets and drowning all in the torrent of air. Most days it blows from the west, trying in vain to turn the sea back on itself.
Sometimes, rarely, it comes from the east, frigid, bringing the anger of the sea with it.
The printer whispered, whined and spat out the last page. He picked it up and looked at the bleeding grey type. It was legible enough. The orange LED told him that the ink was low. He grabbed the binder to the left of his desk and popped it open, removed one of the clear plastic sleeves from the rings and shut it with a snap. The pages slipped in with a bit of effort, breaking the static charged seal. He tapped the bottom on the desk, evening it all out. Next to the desk stood a cabinet. On top was a brown, padded A4 envelope. He scratched his name and address off the front and wrote “FAO Dr Reed” with a felt tip pen just above the squiggles. He paused briefly before inserting the plastic-clad document, looking at the title page. It was only a few pages long. He resisted the urge to take it out, to check it again. Instead he slid it into the envelope and got ready to go.
Outside the trees bent and whipped under the weight of the storm. He tucked his t-shirt in his jeans, fearing the wind. The t-shirt was plain, white; clean. He dragged a blue rugby top over the t-shirt and a red woolly jumper over the rugby top. A quick glance in the mirror to make sure none of the layers had got caught on any of the other layers. His upright dark hair elongated an already long face. Soft brown eyes that easily darkened. He scratched his stubble and ran a hand through his hair. He left the room, leaving the door ajar. His flatmate’s wax jacket lay in the hall. It smelled of horse and horseshit. He put it on anyway and slid the brown envelope into the large poacher’s pocket on the left. His fingers found an old Snickers wrapper that he chucked into the bin in the kitchen. He wiggled his feet into an old pair of trainers, but they were damp and cold. Kicking them off, he went back into his room and found a pair of hiking boots. The laces were frayed, useless, but they were dry. He managed a makeshift knot and was ready to face the outside. Checking his pockets for keys and wallet he bounded down the stairs, two or three at a time.
It was cold and damp in the entranceway, the brick floor permanently wet from autumn until the middle of spring. He flipped the cast-iron latch and the door flew opened, the wind smacking his hand against the stone wall. Shaking his hand out and swearing for the sake of it, he stepped out into the gale and managed to pull the door shut behind him.
The ruins of the castle stood before him, glistening in the wet. It wasn’t a long walk to the pub. The wind attempted to lift him from behind, using the jacket as a sort of sail. Turning left onto North Castle Street the wind abated. He shoved his hand deep into his pockets. He thought dimly of the weather and cheered himself up with the anticipation of the pint to come, his first for 2 days. The pub would be crowded, but not so much that he wouldn’t get a seat. It would be warm, warmer than his flat at least, and cosy with the boozy heat of the others. As he reached the glistening cobbles at the east end of Market Street, his mind drifted elsewhere; back to the envelope in his pocket.
He turned right onto South Street and walked passed the mediaeval merchant houses to number 71. The short, uneven door, adorned on either side by slightly awkward columns, was slightly ajar. He pushed in, greeted by cool fluorescent light. It flickered. Notice boards for the various course modules were littered with tacked on schedules and amendments and posters for upcoming guest lectures. The Department of Mediaeval History always seemed to have something going on. He checked the board for honours students and found nothing of interest. He checked his mailbox and there was a note from the archaeological society, mentioning potential digs for the summer. He read it as he walked into the department office.
He looked up from the note.
“Why, hello, Michael, what can I do for you today?”
“Could you pop this into Dr Reed’s mailbox for me?”
“Is it late?”
“Nope - not this time. I reckon it’s almost 15 minutes early.”
“Michael, getting something in 15 minutes before it’s late doesn’t make it early, it just means it’s on time.”
“I’ll take whatever ‘not late’ I can get. Cheers, Sheila. Is he in?”
“No, he’s out all day today. Had Max with him and the other one. Something in the field.”
“The field? It’s dark already. They’re probably in the Whey Pat.”
They both smiled.
“I’ll let him know you dropped it off.”
“Ta. How’s your research going?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Can’t get into the rare book room these days - you bloody undergrads are hogging the only slots I’ve got off.”
“Pretty sure you could pull a string or two.”
Mike looked at the clock. Almost 5.
“Right, Sheila, I’ll not waste your time anymore - there’s a pint out there with my name on it and there are too many Michaels in this town to leave it unattended.”
“Go on, then. And have a good weekend.”
Mike tucked the list of summer digs into his pocket and walked out into the wet and the rain. Down Rose Lane (formerly Baker’s Wynd), by the small garden that school children snuck smokes in during their lunch break and back out onto the cobbled end of Market Street.
The Central sat on the corner of Market Street and College Street. Under its sign hung a clock that never worked. Tall windows faced the street, decked with gold stencil that steamed up quickly when the pub got busy. The pub was always busy. There were two sets of doors, though the outer pair stayed open while the bar was open. The inner pair were dark heavy wood, stained to a mahogany red. He grabbed the long, smudged brass handle and pulled it towards him, feeling a wall of warmth hit him square in the face. Stepping in, he saw the back table packed out with various friends and acquaintances. Holding court sat Harry, gesturing wildly with his arm wrapped around one of the Fionas. There were a lot of Fionas.
“Oi, Mike – you’re late!” Harry looked at his friend shaking himself off at the bar, taking off his coat. “Is that my fucking Barbour?”
“You’ve got my oilskin Harry – don’t give me shit about your fucking Barbour. What’re you having?”
“Guinness. And can you get Fi a vodka and tonic please, mate?”
“Would you like ice and lemon?”
“In my Guinness? Are you off your head?”
“I was talking to Fi, dickhead.”
“Yes please, Mike, that would be lovely.” Fiona sounded breathless, as though she’d been laughing.
“Mike’s always lovely…” Harry followed up, in a mock falsetto.
Harry Roxburgh was from the Borders, but didn’t sound Scottish. He’d been to boarding school in the Home Counties. Mike never remembered which one. He was slightly overweight but cheerful and usually charming, with good looks that weren’t too obscured by developing jowls. His dark hair was cut short and sometimes spiked with gel. Mike thought it made him look younger than he was, like a schoolboy too big for his year. Harry played rugby at school, but gave it up soon after arriving in St Andrews. He claimed it was due to a neck injury in 6th form but Mike suspected that it was more due to the apathy that came with university life. Harry had a knack for lifting the dour mood that could settle in the winter.
They met in first year, as roommates in St Salvator’s, and fallen into trouble together from Fresher’s Week. They wound each other up, one from the borders and posh, the other from the north, a mature student who viewed most of the younger St Andrews students with incredulity and impatience.
The barman’s hair, jet-black and shimmering, was tied in a ponytail that fell down below his elbows, clinging to the sleeves of the worn Megadeth t-shirt, long since black. The corners of his mouth turned in a sneer and his posture defied his lanky frame. He fidgeted with the remote control, trying to get decent reception. The long nails on his left hand tapped the brass drip tray as he gestured the remote violently at the screen, as though the harder he shook it, the better the picture would get.
“Give it up, Ian, it’s never going to get any better – better served turning the bloody thing off and turning the juke box on.” Mike had never seen Ian smile. Ever.
“They’ll just put Parklife on again.”
“Better than Take That. Right: pint of OP, vodka & tonic with ice n’ a slice and a pint of Guinness please, mate.”
Mike looked around the bar while Ian made the drinks. The bar itself took up the centre of the pub, the seating surrounding it. Dark wood furniture and floors and deep crimson wallpaper gave the place warmth, though the fireplaces lay silent. Various Victorian mirrors adorned the walls, advertising the beers and minerals of breweries long silent, if indeed they ever existed; many were replicas or all-out fakes. Behind the bar, faded black & white photos showing bowtied proprietors going back to the end of the nineteenth century, looking proudly at the camera through handlebar mustachios and great sideburns. Mike wondered if there were anything remaining that actually dated back to the photo. Not the bar, overly ornate and trying too hard to look authentic. Nor the furniture, again straight from the Start Your Own Traditional Pub kit. The windows, maybe?
“You said ice n’ lemon, right?”
“Yeah, Ian, thanks.”
A group of students in the corner had started singing old Monty Python songs. Mike wrote them off as first years. As the dulcet tones of Sit on My Face (and Tell Me that You Love Me) echoed through the bar he looked up at the shelf of old beer bottles. They claimed to be from an Edinburgh brewer, Bernards. There seemed to be no uniform size or shape; everything from small bottles to gallon jugs. Mike half expected to see XXX on the side of the jugs, like in old Looney Tunes cartoons.
Mike handed the money over and grabbed the two pints between his thumbs and forefingers, using his middle fingers grab the V&T. He sat at the table, sliding Fi’s drink towards her giggling form first, then handed Harry the Guinness. Harry’s hand was high up Fiona’s left thigh as he spoke to the chap on his left. She didn’t seem to mind. Mike tried to remember the bloke’s name. James? No. He forgot more names than he remembered. He scanned the rest of the table. Maybe-James was on his right, wearing an England rugby top, followed by Harry, who was now giving Maybe-James abuse for his misplaced rugby loyalty and fashion transgression. Fi, thigh still in Harry’s grasp, chatted to what looked to be a post grad, about Mike’s age. His holey, v-necked blue jumper barely covered a checked, collared shirt that may never have seen an iron. Next to the post grad and opposite the table from Mike was Seb, or Sebastian. Seb clutched a pint of Coke. His hand trembled slightly as he raised the glass to his lips and as he put it down again. He looked as though he might pass out. He grabbed a Marlboro Light from a soft pack on the table, looked at it, thought better of it, and put it back in the pack. He closed his eyes and lowered his head so that his chin was almost touching his chest. His blonde locks flopped in front of his face and Mike smiled.
To Seb’s right sat a diminutive blonde. She wore a battered red baseball cap that bore no logo, a grey, woolly jumper and tight black jeans. As Seb slumped, she drove an elbow into his shoulder. His hair seemed to wake up before he did as his head shot up, eyes wide, and he looked towards his assailant.
“What? Leave me alone, Katie, I’m dying.”
“Sebastian,” Katie spoke slowly, as to an infant, “After all the grief last night and this morning, the least you could do is pay attention when I’m talking to you!” She looked at Mike and her eyes lit up. “He was nearly sick in my bed last night, and then this morning he bitched about dying, and how as he was dying he needed a blow job before he went as there might not be any oral sex in heaven…”
“It couldn’t be heaven without oral sex.” Mike jumped in.
“That’s what I said, anyway, he then just spends the rest of the morning groaning. So I go off to hockey practice and get back and he’s still in my bloody bed, drinking tea and eating hobnobs. Wanker.”
Katie took the cigarette that Seb had contemplated from the soft pack and lit it, drawing in deeply.
Seb’s chin had found his chest again.
“I’m surprised he could make a cup of tea; the state of him.”
“He didn’t. He got Lucy to do it.”
“You’re joking. I thought Lucy hated him.”
“Apparently he was charming and pathetic enough for her to take pity.”
“Not charming and pathetic enough to get a bj though, right?”
Katie laughed a big toothy laugh, “No! Not yet anyway.”
“Fuck off, both of you.” Seb’s head was up again and he looked as though he may follow on, but gravity brought his chin back down. He shifted slightly in his chair and his locks came down even further over his face.
Katie took a large sip of a large G&T and smiled at Mike again. “So were you at Amy’s last night?”
“Nah – quiet night in. Had to finish my dissertation proposal, and the last time I saw Amy she accused me of being a miserable cunt.”
“I heard about that. Honestly, I have no idea what’s wrong with that girl; it’s as though she’s the only one in the world allowed to be miserable. And don’t get me wrong, I think she’s lovely, and she is a mate, but for Christ’s sake, it’s not all fucking drama, is it?”
“I just don’t really have the patience. Moira said she took it badly that I didn’t take her to the Highland Ball and then in the same breath says she wouldn’t be caught dead with me. Bit childish.”
“Glad you could come tonight, at least.”
“To be honest, I probably would’ve been here anyway. Just handed in the proposal for my dissertation and rumour has it this place sells beer now. I didn’t even know tonight was a ‘tonight’ until Harry mentioned it.”
Mike realised his beer sat untouched while Harry’s was almost finished. It was Harry’s round. He drained half of his pint of Old Peculiar in one, almost choking. The dark, bitter fruitiness left him a bit breathless.
“Oi – Harry! OP for me please, mate.”
“You’re going a bit slow there, Mike – sure you don’t want a half?”
“Piss off Roxburgh, and get me a beer.”
“Ice & lemon?”
Mike took a smaller sip. It improved with smaller sips. He went back to table watching and nodded at the girl sitting next to Katie. It looked like she was wearing hockey quarters so he assumed she was a friend of Katie’s, dragged along for a few pints. He didn’t know her, hadn’t been introduced and wasn’t too bothered. She was pretty, though. Fi’s postrgrad friend had disappeared though so he nodded at her and asked her chat.
“Not bad Mike, just looking forward to Christmas hols. My folks and I are off to Val d’Iser to ski for two weeks. Love the snow, hate the rain – know what I mean? How about you – you missed a wicked party last night. Harry was in tremendous form.”
“So it would seem.”
Fiona didn’t blush. She smiled and made a small nod towards the bar. Then she giggled.
“You heard? Or is it that obvious? Yeah. Well, it was a brilliant party aside from that. Some of the KK boys showed up after one of their club meetings with loads of bubbly and it all got very messy. Fortunately Harry and I missed the real silliness. They started doing the dumbest drinking forfeits, apparently, and then they started shaving eyebrows and all that nonsense.” She paused for moment, to look at Mike. He laughed.
“I had my eyebrows shaved once, at a mate’s stag do. Felt like a right arsehole. Took ages to grow back. Don’t understand why they shaved my eyebrows anyway. Supposed to be the stag’s they do away with, isn’t it?”
“I guess so, bit young to be on the wedding circuit just yet.”
“Don’t get into that old man bollocks. ‘Sides, the stag was only 18.”
“God, that’s two years younger than me!”
Mike shrugged and sipped his beer.
They drank for 3 hours, pint replacing pint, fags stubbed and relit. The table awash in beer, gin and vodka with cigarette ash turned into black, wet mounds of sticky effluvium. They felt lazy and drunk. Katie’s hockey friend had long since left, leaving Mike with little to look at. The jukebox belted out Blur. No drunken shouting, just a drunken murmur, slurred slightly at the end. Mike and Harry descended into an argument about who had stolen whose jacket first. It went on for 5 minutes before Katie and Fiona told them to stop being so stupid. Christmas came up, and some expressed jealousy at Fi’s ski trip until Katie let slip that she and her family were going to Mauritius. Harry responded that Christmas in hot places was rubbish. Mike asked if he had first hand knowledge and Harry said no, he couldn’t dream of being anywhere but home. But if Katie had a spare ticket he’d give it a shot for the sake of research. More laughter and a slap on the shoulder from Fiona. Mike shook his head and muttered that it was too early to be talking about Christmas. There was Halloween, Reading Week and Raisin Weekend to come before even thinking about Christmas. Harry’s eyes lit up at the mention of Raisin Weekend.
“We’re having a party this year, right?”
Mike smiled and shrugged.
“Of course. Just no live bands this time.”
Harry looked disappointed at that condition and he slid his hand a little further up Fi’s leg to cheer himself up. He winked at her and looked towards the door, which had burst open to the elements to reveal new arrivals.
“And you’re one to talk about too early, McEwan, your proposal for a dissertation isn’t due until May and you’ve just handed it in at the beginning of Oct… Oi! Ledger! Get some beers in and bring those ladies of yours over!”
A tall boy in a Fat Face top and torn jeans walked towards the table, surrounded by three laughing women. His face broke into a wide grin. Brown curls whipped this way and that, softening his long, freckled face.
“How did he manage to share a flat with such gorgeous women? Mike – you’re a man of the world. Well, Perth at least. How the did he do it? Will he teach me?” Another playful slap from Fiona. A squeeze back on the thigh.
“It’s ‘cause he doesn’t try. I dunno. Man of the world my arse – I’m the only single bloke here.”
“That’s ‘cause all the girls are scared of his flatmates.”
“Michael, that’s total bollocks and Harry, you should be ashamed of listening to your reprobate flatmate. He’s full of shit.”
Mike smirked. Fiona rolled her eyes at him and shouted at Harry, who was helping Andy with the now larger round, for another V&T. Mike grabbed a table and some chairs to add to their own. The group now dominated rear half of the pub. Ian’s attempts to turn the tv back on were greeted with boos and hisses. Ian muttered something under his breath and started to put away the drip trays. Andy Ledger sat down between Harry and Mike while the taller of his 3 companions, probably 5’ 9’, sat next to Mike.
Mike smiled at the girl and took a swig from one of the three pints in front him. He was beginning to fall behind again.
Her gold hair was tied loosely back and her quartered rugby top bore the emblem of the university water polo team. She’d pulled her collar up and wore a scarf between it and her neck. She smelled of fabric softener and the remains of soap. Perfumed but not perfume. The battered jeans she wore looked comfy but not without suggesting form. Absent-minded biro doodles ran up and down the outside of her right thigh. Mike noticed that one of them was of Garfield. She laughed across the table at one of Harry’s exclamations of innocence when someone accused him of nicking the fag he was lighting. She took her drink from Harry as he handed it over and sipped it slowly. Mike assumed it was a gin or vodka and tonic as it was clear, full of ice and a bit of lemon floated in it. She placed the drink on the table, trying in vain to find a dry patch, while Mike asked Ian for a cloth to wipe the table. Ian muttered something inaudible and handed a damp mesh bundle to Mike from under the bar. He rubbed the table down and bellowed at Harry to lift his fucking pint off the table so as he could clean it up a bit. A few miscalculated wipes brought more liquid some from of the fuller glasses, including one of his own. He swore and attempted to undo the new mess. Caught up in the cleaning, Mike forgot why he started. He cleaned a place for the girl’s glass and handed the cloth back to the lurking Ian.
“Thanks for that. You’re Harry’s flatmate, right?”
“We met at one of Fiona’s parties at the end of last year – I’m Charlie.”
“You live with Andy, right?”
“Yes, one of his mother hens.”
Mike laughed and drank. The beer tasted better with every pint. The buzz in the pub kicked off; Harry holding court as both king of the table and its jester while individual conversations continued, they all tended to overlap or jump in to the central chat. Harry regaled the table with a prince charming story, himself as the prince, rescuing the fair Fiona from the clutches of an inebriated rugby boy. Or dragon, whose breath had a whiff of flaming sambuca about it, apparently. Fiona feigned a mortified look as Harry’s tale placed her in a tower, hidden from the world. Mike pictured the scene as it would have been, upstairs in the tower bedroom of Amy’s flat, rugby Oli attempting to make his move on Fiona and failing miserably, an arm on either side of her head, leaning forward slowly, the stench of 15 pints of cheap lager and 30 fags hitting her like a brick. Suddenly Harry enters the room and tells Oli that 6 shinty boys have just arrived, in full kit, and have claimed the rugby boys suck cock. An enraged Al erupts from the room followed by Harry and Fiona, who choose the room next door to celebrate Harry’s incredibly brilliant ruse. What started with laughter turns into something more. The fairy tale, however, painted a somewhat different picture. The dragon’s natural enemy became the griffin, according to Harry.
“So with a giant wooden griffin –“
“Is this your story? No. This is my story. Do you want to tell a story?”
“Well, tough shit, Ledger. And watch your language – this is a family pub. Twat.”
“You’re talking rubbish.”
Harry laughed, paying no heed.
“So the knight rocks up with this griffin and tricks the evil dragon into buggering off, leaving the lovely Princess Fiona for the handsome knight.”
Fiona laughed, “who said the knight was handsome? Charming maybe, but not handsome.”
Harry feigned a look of anguish at the comment, pulled Fi towards him and made a show of licking her cheek. The table rumbled with laughter and exaggerated looks of disgust. Fiona pushed Harry away and grabbed his beer and poured half of it into his lap. Harry shrieked and jumped back into the bar to escape the flowing beer. Harry looked across the table of his friends, his jeans sticking to his crotch and the top of his thighs like wet toilet paper. Mike choked on his pint laughing and snatched a quick glance at the girl next to him. Andy Ledger smiled and shouted for Harry not to have a sense of humour crisis. He looked towards Fiona, raging and lusting, wondering how she could humiliate him, wanting to storm off and shout fuck you to everyone. She turned towards him and looked up with sympathy, mirth and affection. He tried to look aloof and disgruntled, shoot daggers at her with his eyes. Maintain a cold disregard. He laughed at his own grumpiness. He picked up what remained of his beer and drained it, pretending to pour the last over Fi’s head. She grabbed the glass from hand and leapt from her stool to face him. They stared each other in the face, Harry only leaning forward slightly to out-stare her. Both wore masks of rage. Harry cracked first. His eyes slipped from anger to mirth and even biting his lower lip couldn’t stop the smile spreading and the giggles from following. It croaked out, coming from his nose as he kept his mouth shut. Fiona held her menace until Harry was laughing out loud and then she slipped into giggles. Her arms found his neck and she reached up and kissed his right cheek.
Applause from the table surrounded the couple and brought a couple of curious glances from some of the non-student drinkers in the pub. Mike winked at Fi as she sat back down and she smiled at him, waving him come over for a quick chat. He asked whatshername to save his seat and walked over to join Fi. He nearly forgot his pint.
“So what do you think?”
“Fi, I think it’s been a long time coming.”
“He’s a terrible wanker.”
“One of his best qualities.” She laughed as Mike took a sip from his beer and went on, “you two get on like a house on fire – your entire friendship up to this point has been foreplay I’m sure of it, and if he hadn’t made that dreadful mistake with Julia you’d have been together a long time ago.”
“I know I’m right. I’m the old man and old men are always right. That’s why people climb up mountains to seek their wisdom.”
“What in the fuck are you talking about?”
“You know, those old tales where the young man seeks the elder man’s wisdom and he has to climb some big hill or mountain and there’s this old git sitting there on a rug or something. And he’s there and has all the answers, but the young one has to go on some task or quest and by the time he gets back he already knows the answer because the quest taught him whatever he needed to know, and the old guy just sits there and smiles. Sometimes you want to punch the old guy. Joseph Campbell type stuff.”
“How many pints have you had?”
“5ish – I’m fine – c’mon, you’ve never heard of the remote hilltop old man thing?”
“I might have, it doesn’t make it normal pub chat does it?”
“Well, no, but it was just meant to serve a point.”
“Which you’ve totally lost me on.”
“That I’m the old man of this group.”
“Well, of course you are my dear.”
“Anyway, far more importantly, do you approve of Harry and I?”
“You only hooked up last night.”
He paused. Fi’s eyes bored into him and flicked towards Harry. When she looked back at Mike she smiled and crossed her arms.
“I approve. I’m very happy for you both. I’m assuming that you’ve actually decided to officially go out.”
“Well, that’s lovely. At least you’ve cut out the awkward nonsense that usually follows a drunken pull. You know, whether to drop by for a cup of tea, or try to wind up drunk at the same place all over again – all that bollocks.”
Mike smiled at her and she hugged him. He felt her breast push against his chest. There was a small whiff of shampoo rising from her auburn hair, cutting through the ambient pub aromas. Everything about her felt warm: her smile, her clothes, her chat. They had met in first year, towards the end of the first semester, at a party in halls. Mike remembered thinking she was a third or fourth year, not because she looked older but because she held herself that way. They shared a bottle of wine in a kitchen on C-floor at Sallies compared the standard background tales of school and childhood. She spoke of Edinburgh and her parents, both teachers. Mike told of moving around as a child, to where ever his father was posted. He noticed a dimple high on top of her right cheek that only appeared when she laughed.
The jukebox kicked up a notch and shook them from their repose.
Mike kissed her cheek and she pulled back and put her arm around Harry, who was mid-way through expanding on the adventures of the brave knight to his audience. In this tale the knight sought breakfast for himself and his damsel, to be frustrated only by an obstinate check-out girl at Tesco.
“Never been the same since it was Willie Lows.”
“I’m going to need another pint.”
“Mike, you’ve got two already.” She pointed across the table at his pints, eyes gleaming.
“How long’ve they been sitting there?”
Fi laughed and shooed him away.
Mike wandered back to his beer. He stared at the pints. The last, thin collection of bubbles clung to the far rim of the farthest pint. The closer pint had none. He looked at the closest glass. He knew it was doom. It was the final straw. After that would be a chaos of memory loss and apologies in the morning. He still felt fine but he knew it was beer lying to him.
Standing back up, he turned to the bar and asked for a pint of water, no ice. There was a new barmaid on duty. She poured the clear pint and handed it back to him. Mike took a long sip and nodded thanks to her. He got back to the table and sat down. It was to be a different evening now. He would sit the next round out, he thought, then join back in with a steadier pace.
“Harry, mate – you got any gum?”
Harry frowned at the clear pint.
“You’re a disgrace.”
“Maybe, but I still need gum.”
“A good knight always comes prepared.”
“Well thank you Don Qui-fucking-xote of Jedburgh.”
“Now, do you have any gum?”
“Give me some.”
“Not until you tell me what you and Fi chatted about.”
“You’re not getting any gum.”
“Don’t be a twat, ‘Sir Harry’.
“I prefer Don Qui-fucking-xote”
“Well then give me some gum.”
Mike popped the gum in his mouth and took a large sip from his water pint. His life changed. The drunkenness retired from his physical being and seemed only to gilt his mental state. Michael believed in his chat. He started with Harry, jousting with the knight metaphor and succeeding. He jibed Fi somewhat and raised her eyebrows though she refused be dragged in more, claiming immunity to his whimsical and occasionally lyrical nonsense. Delighted with wordplay he turned to his left.
What was her name?
He was sure of it. Brilliant.
“Bloke’s name, that.”
“Hah. Never heard that one before. Honestly.”
She rolled her eyes but kept her face to him.
“I’m sorry. That really was obvious, wasn’t it?”
Charlie smiled and shook her head. “A bit. You’ll have to try a little harder than that, Mike.”
Pointed corners appeared at the ends of his lips and someone stoked the fires behind his irises. This could be a ruse, there could be nothing in it. He was drunk. She must know that. He was on the water already. Harry shouted to the rafters about it. But she didn’t mind that he was full of shit. How long had she been there? She hadn’t been drinking much, he was sure of it. She was pretty. He looked again at the biro hieroglyphs on her jeans.
“Any rhyme or reason to those?”
She sighed. The question hung in the air for a moment and the noise of the pub did little to fill the silence.
“It’s a bit like a scrapbook. They’re my favourite jeans and I’m a compulsive doodler. In first year I was in a lecture and had no paper or even books – I’d just run there from my boyfriend’s room and hoped to borrow some but couldn’t find anyone I knew…”
“You ran to a lecture in first year?”
“It was quite early on; I was still eager.” She laughed and he smiled with her.
“So instead of doodling on the paper I doodled a bit on my jeans. I never took notes anyway, I just liked doodling.”
“So when you say you were eager, you were eager to doodle.”
She laughed and blushed, flicking her eyes down to the clear drink and its floating lemon. “Yeah, I suppose. So later on Camilla sees the doodles and asks if she could add her own. And it’s just sort of gone from there. People ask if they can add something and they do. The scribbles come and go though – I have to wash them obviously, and the older marks are all gone.”
“That’s quite cool. I approve.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“You do, do you?”
“I do indeed, it has my seal of approval. You should consider yourself hugely privileged.”
He nodded to her with affected primness and turned towards his empty pint of water. He’d blown it. Swallowing air he wondered if there’d been anything to blow. The rest of the table was oblivious to his vain chat attempts. The brief elation following his pint of water seeped from his pores, replaced by a clammy discomfort and throbbing temples. His mood gave him earmuffs, reducing the noise around him and amplifying the grindings of his internal workings.
“What was that?”
“I said, I’m glad you approve.”
“Are you deaf?”
“No, I heard you that time, honest, I just, sometimes it takes me awhile to rejoin the conversation. I thought…”
Go for broke.
“I thought I was acting like a complete twat, to be honest.”
“But I don’t think you meant it.”
“I meant it when I said they were cool. I really like them. It’s a bit different, without, well, without trying to be different.” He lingered on the trying, strengthening the Perthshire in his voice.
“Thanks. To be honest, I’d rather you pretending to be arrogant than what Ryan said when he first saw them.”
“Rugby Ryan? The evil ogre?” Mike nodded towards Harry.
“The very same. Ex of mine.”
“He wasn’t that bad. But he was fucking rude about the jeans. When he first saw them he asked if they were a guestbook.”
Mike laughed in spite of himself, tried to swallow it back and did himself some damage, choking on air and falling into a coughing fit. Charlie looked on him triumphantly as his face shifted from red to purple and Harry jumped up heroically to thump Mike on the back. Their corner of the pub turned into a little piece of bedlam, Charlie in hysterics while Harry shifted to some sort of American evangelist, commanding the vile demons in Mike to depart. Song for Whoever by the Beautiful South slinked from the jukebox. Mike tried to scream fuck off but failed, dropping forward from his chair hiding his head under the table while trying to regain composure. The new girl behind the bar didn’t know whether to kick them all out or join Charlie in laughing hysterically.
“Harry, fuck off!”
“That’s no way to treat salvation.”
Mike wheezed, gripped the edge of the table and pulled himself up. He felt like he’d been sick again. He grimaced as his hand stuck to the table for a moment. He was back. Breath returned and the room stopped swimming. Harry looked at him with a question mark. Mike let out a long, slow breath.
“Out vile demons?”
Harry’s question mark changed to a Cheshire cat.
“In times of trouble mate, many find religion.”
Mike chuckled meekly and steadied himself before sitting down and assessing the Charlie situation. Sympathy? Humour? Anger?
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, sure, just facing death by laughter, you know.”
“You sort of deserved it.” Her face went stoic. “You shouldn’t have laughed.”
“You’re right. But, well, it was kind of funny. Objectively funny, excepting that he’d been very rude to you, which is something that he should be beaten for. Soundly beaten.”
Her face cracked. She laughed and pulled her stool slightly closer, looking him straight in the eye, then blinking away she picked up her drink and shook the now-empty glass. He nodded towards the high ball, asking if she wanted another drink. She grinned and mouthed please, and he stood and turned towards the bar. He didn’t know what she was drinking. The new bar maid poured pints for the Ancient History lecturers in the corner. Slight pressure on his right shoulder brought his head round to find hers. She was taller than he thought.
“Gin & tonic please, Mike.”
She turned and headed towards the ladies’ room, letter her arm brush down the back of his arm as she left. He gazed at her backside until she disappeared and then checked to see if the barmaid had returned from supplying the red-faced lecturers. Nowhere to be seen. Leaning against the bar, eyes fixed on the optics, he didn’t see Fi creeping up beside him.
“Uh, well…” He didn’t have enough for a round, just for himself and Charlie.
“Don’t worry about it, Mike. You just take care of Charlie.” She smiled wickedly. Mike blushed.
“I’m surprised Harry hasn’t jumped in to sabotage it yet.”
“I’ve been keeping him in line.”
“Thanks. I think, well, I think she’s cool. I’ve talked rubbish but she’s called me on it and given me the chance to recover. Do you know her at all?”
“I know that she hasn’t been out with anyone since Ryan, but that was only a month ago.”
“No random pulls or anything?”
“Nope. There were rumours that she gave up on men altogether, but I think that’s bollocks.”
“Because it all came from guys who’d try to pull her.”
“Ah, the classic she must be a lesbian if she doesn’t want to sleep with me approach to things.”
“Yes, very classy.”
Fi squeezed his arm and wished him luck, heading towards the loo herself. The barmaid finally noticed Mike and took his order for a g&t and a pint of Deuchars. He was nervous. The more he chatted, the less he felt he was chatting up. She’d let him off the hook twice. If he screwed up again it would just be a waste of time. What did he want? Sex? Well, yes, to be honest, he wanted sex. But that wasn’t all. He hadn’t started chatting in hopes of success, he just started chatting because it felt right. He wasn’t expecting anything and now he was enjoying himself. She liked him, he was sure of it. And she liked him when he was telling the truth. He wasn’t a liar anymore than the next man, but he did slip into bullshit easily, especially with Harry around. She didn’t like that. It occurred to him that this could be a great evening.
The doors in the far corner creaked and Mike looked and watched as the guy who opened them took a step into the bar. He was large, blonde, and wore a university rugby team training hoodie under his jacket. His left ear, the one closest to Mike, was cauliflowered, and his nose had been broken at least once. It suited him. If not for the scowl, he would have been quite handsome. For a split-second Mike thought that he couldn’t have imagined anyone worse walking through that door. Ryan scanned the pub and lingered on Mike’s table for a moment. He didn’t noticed Mike. Something seemed to annoy him, possibly the sight of Harry, so shook his head, turned around and walked out. When the doors closed behind Ryan, Mike released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.
As he brought the drinks back to the table, Harry mouthed something indecipherable and gave him the thumbs up. Mike hoped that wouldn’t jinx him.
Fi and Charlie returned from the ladies’ together. They tried too hard to look as though nothing had passed between them and there was conspiracy etched on both their faces. Mike’s stomach turned. Fi would have bigged him up. It made him feel more was at stake.
Charlie sat down and sipped from her drink, eyes glittering with new knowledge.
“So, Fi tells me you’re old.”
Mike’s head turned towards his would-be ally. Fi smiled back, oblivious to his despair.
“I’m a mature student, not old.”
“Well, so what, we are in Scotland after all.”
“You don’t have much of an accent. I only pick it up every once in awhile.”
Mike started tearing small squares out of his beer mat.
“I moved around a lot when I was younger – my dad was in the RAF and so most of the kids around me growing up were English. We moved back to Perthshire when he retired but my accent was a bit of a mess by then. It’s funny, I never really cared about my voice until I moved back to Scotland. I was only 17 when we came back, but all the kids my age wanted to know why I sounded like a posh twat.”
“Did you try to change your voice at all?”
“Nah, posh twat or not, it was how I sounded – now it’s pretty mixed up actually. Some of the Perthshire’s coming back into it. No idea how, considering how everyone talks in St Andrews.”
“And what did you do before you came to uni, after you finished school?”
“I had no idea what I wanted to do. I did alright on my highers but got sidetracked. I worked in a few pubs up north, ran one for awhile, then did some game-keeping on some of the big estates. The posh twat voice went down pretty well up there. My dad wanted me to do Sandhurst and the army but it wasn’t my thing. So I applied to St Andrews after my 21st and got in, having spent 4 years doing this and that.”
“Did you come here because you’d figured out what you wanted to do and you needed a degree, or did you come here because you wanted more time to figure out what you wanted to do?”
Mike’s beer mat was confetti now, and his elation of earlier drained. He hated the questions.
“Probably the latter. I wanted to do Archaeology, but not as a job. I’ve tried to get on some of the digs and surveys around here, but it’s not easy. I don’t know. I’m enjoying it though. And I’m not that old.”
This felt like a cop out.
“I didn’t realise there was going to be an interrogation in return for buying you a drink.”
“I was just curious. You’re considered quite the enigma about town.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“So what about you? I haven’t a clue about you but that doesn’t make you an enigma.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Everything – birth to this morning.”
“Not a chance.”
“Well, where’re you from then, and why do you have a posh accent?”
She glared. He held it.
“It’s not that posh.”
“Not for St Andrews, maybe, but it’s not state school.”
“No, it’s not state school.”
She said it without arrogance, without any sense of being affronted. Merely with impatience. He didn’t give in, and kept staring back at her, daring her to back down. He wondered whether this was an act. An attempt to be difficult, to see if he’d surrender. He hoped not. Games bewildered him. He figured the best way not to get sucked into it would be to ignore the chance it was a game.
“Well, if it’s not state school, that leaves grammar or public, though to be honest I’m beginning to not give a shit.”
“Well, you can just fuck off then.”
Of course, he thought, if it was just a game, he just lost. There were no more beer coasters to tear apart on the table. The one he’d dealt with before had mixed with spilled beer and left a pulpy mess. The rest of the crew engaged in drunker and louder chat, with Harry seeming a bit worse for the wear. He turned his pint glass in his hands, using it to push some of the spillage off the table between his knees. Once again the background noise lost definition and he shut himself off from the pub around him. It was time to go home. She was sitting on his jacket. Well, Harry’s jacket. She wanted to say something. He wasn’t going to let her.
“I’m from Northumberland.”
“Good for you. Get off my jacket, it’s well passed my bedtime.”
“I went to school near Bristol.”
“Brilliant. Please get off my jacket.”
“For sitting on my jacket? Apology accepted, though please get off it now, as it’s awful outside and I’ll need it.”
“Don’t go because of me.”
“Look, please don’t think I’m leaving because you’re more than happy to grill me on my life, call me old, claim that I’m some sort of enigma and then clam up as soon as I ask anything about you. I wasn’t that interested. Granted, I toyed with the idea of getting laid, and you have to make some sacrifices to chat to get there, but then I actually started talking to you, almost, and you were having none of it. So, if this is yet another ridiculous fucking St Andrews mating game test, well congratulations, you won. You reeled me in for a good 20 minutes there. Nice jeans and all, the hint of someone a bit different, but no, yet another cut-glass English bitch. At least you got a drink out of it.”
She locked her head directly at the still-full gin and tonic in front of her. Drops of condensation scattered on the outside of the glass split the room into a hundred bulbous microcosms, the reflections cramped and awkward in their convex image of reality. His chest constricted and his palms sweat freely as he searched for any reaction other than stone. The noise from the table remained unabated and raucous; his tirade just part of the background. He held his eyes on her, willing her to react, to shout, to throw her drink over him, to laugh him off, to storm away in tears, to giggle maniacally, anything at all.
He watched her neck relax, bringing her head forward a fraction and dropping a few strands of hair over her left eye just grazing the top of her cheek. The stone didn’t melt or shatter, but instead settled, her face serene, no longer looking at the drink but somewhere miles beyond it, her eyes were not as wide as before and while her lips did not smile they were not frowning or neutral. Whether this came from comprehension or acceptance of his tirade Mike didn’t know – the look and maintenance of that look shook him and struck him with shame.
“Uh, I’m sorry, I went a bit over the top there.” Her eyes didn’t change.
“Well, to be honest, you know, you could have been a bit nicer. I mean I’m sorry, but it wasn’t like I wasn’t provoked.” She didn’t provoke him, she told him to fuck off.
“I just thought, we were getting along and I don’t normally - well I don’t tend to go into a great deal of detail about myself and…”
“I thought it was fair of me to ask and then when you answered I’d still been angry about everything and this is all pretty fucking obvious. I’m sorry. I’d buy you a drink but your glass is still full. I was babbling and explaining and now I can’t come up with any decent chat but to offer you a drink. Which shows how worked up I am because five minutes ago I thought I could talk about anything for hours.”
Her eyes pulled back from the beyond and landed squarely on his. He flinched, then met her stare. Everybody save Fiona laughed, shouted, drank and hollered, oblivious to his end of the table. Fiona looked right at him as well: she had kept tabs all evening. She probably had heard or at least seen his anger earlier. Charlie drew her lower lip under her teeth, then let it go again, smiling.
“Do you want to start over?”
Mike sought a glimmer of her serenity. Her smile washed it away though and there as a question mark there instead. “No. No – well, it’s interesting isn’t it? It’s revelatory – you’ve got a bit more of an idea of what I’m really like now. I have a temper – and I know that you don’t like to talk about where you’re from, or at least don’t like being pushed about it. I think that’s a good thing. Sweeping it under the table, pretending it didn’t happen, what’s the point? Just because it happened doesn’t mean we can’t talk about other stuff – we can talk about anything really.” And, he realised, he was beginning to babble again. His face flushed a bit. He didn’t talk this much, ever. Which, he reasoned, was probably why he was so rubbish at it. She was nodding at him, and smiling with silent laughter.
“Ok then, we like the conflict and embrace the rich tapestry it gives us, I can deal with that.” She was making fun of him. He deserved it.
They talked around in circles for a bit, in spite of embracing the conflict, the conversation didn’t come easily to either of them. As the pair sought common ground Harry burst into a falsetto rendition of Take That’s Never Forget, leading to several boos not just from their table but from their neighbours as well. Behind Mike the bar staff erupted in a row over who was meant to put the line in for the guest ale. The shouting got louder and bar towels were thrown, one hitting the near-asleep ancient history lecturer propping up the corner of the bar.
Lectures, exes, party anecdotes, Mike and Charlie sought some of the connection they felt earlier, not getting very far. He told what he thought was a funny enough story about Harry and a stolen bicycle and got a bit of a heartless chuckle in response. He felt stifled. The Central now had that oppressive heat that only comes when it’s too cold outside. The air felt heavy, liquid, viscous like the thick beer slops that sealed the ashtrays to the tables. He was going through the motions now and he didn’t know where to go with it. Charlie seemed to be losing interest as well. It was her that grasped the right straw.
“Where’d you get your scar?”
Mike flushed redder than he had all night. Two inches above his right eye, parallel to his hairline, ran a thin, milky white line between 6 pairs of dots. His blushing brought more attention to the blemish, as it didn’t respond at all, stark white against a now very red face. His dark hair usually fell over it, but in his conversational discomfort he’d plastered it back with the beads of sweat that had formed on his brow.
“Uh – well, it’s ridiculous actually, and I know that I sound like some Victorian rubbish, but it was an accident in Nepal.”
“Oh my god – I was supposed to go to Nepal in my year out! When were you there? What was it like? Were you climbing – how did you hurt yourself?” She rattled the questions at him faster and faster, eyes wide with curiosity, jealousy and excitement. Mike saw more blonde strands fall across her eyes as her head craned towards him. She brushed it back with her hand and half fell again, which she left.
Her interest and glee in his adventures encouraged him and the blood receded from his cheeks. He coughed, half for effect, and smiled at her. He didn’t get the cut climbing, but playing shinty with a mate in a village just north of Kathmandu. Yeah, he played shinty and yeah it was for loonies but in North Perthshire it’s what you played and there was always a bit of impetus to bring it abroad with you, so when he went to Nepal with a mate, travelling before uni, they’d brought their camans with them. Nepal was incredible. He’d taken almost a thousand pictures and never felt he’d really captured what he wanted – just how massive the mountains were, how alien he felt the towns and villages and customs were, how alien he felt; he just couldn’t get it into the pictures. He’d gone to Everest base camp but no further, toyed with the idea of Buddhism, helped at a Tibetan refugee camp and school – what every British youngster in Nepal does. There weren’t as many there as seem to go now, but they hung out at the same pubs and it was cool because the crowd were chilled. You didn’t get the ugly Brit abroad thing so much as elsewhere as it didn’t appeal to that sort of person. Yeah, he’d heard of some nightmares with backpackers further south in India. She had to go when she finished uni because nowhere was like it on earth. Yes, it was cheap to drink because in the high altitude a little booze went a long way and beer was only 15p anyway. He might go back if the opportunity presented itself but there were a few places on his list that he hadn’t been and he wanted to see first, like Australia, New Zealand and South America. Did he have his pictures up here? Yes, but only half of them were really organised – did she want to see them? Yes, but only after she’d finished her drink. She wanted to see them tonight? Yeah, why not, it’s getting minging in here and she’s not in the mood to get pissed. She’s sure his pictures won’t be as bad as he says.
Mike took a second to digest Charlie was coming home with him. His shoulders felt light as his ribs rose – his upper body lifted by some sort of helium. It happened quickly, he’d talked for ages, stuff came back he didn’t remember, stuff he’d cherished and hoped never to forget and in the end, he hadn’t, though he’d not gone back to the past as much as he thought, or hoped, he would. Charlie didn’t just listen, she asked, she prodded, she laughed, she shared. His heart beat so loudly he felt it would crack his already fragile rib cage. She rose from her stool and handed him the jacket he’d demanded less than an hour before and then put on her own. The rest of the table, only a background irritant to Mike for the last 45 minutes, sat in impressed, juvenile silence. Harry’s mouth opened and stopped, the stretched into a wide grin. Fiona placed her hand on his shoulder, smiled at Mike and managed to wink at him without closing an eye. The others quickly fell back into their revelry and Harry dropped his head onto Fiona’s shoulder as Mike and Charlie walked towards the door. Mike took one look back as he held the door open for her and then they stepped out into the rain.