The first time I met Tommy, I smacked him in the mouth. It was around 2am one brutally cold November night in Neukölln, a former West Berlin border district or grenzgebiet, and I was sitting on my own in my favourite bar, a smoke-infused old brauhaus whose German owner had a penchant for playing impossibly obscure Scottish indie music. Buttressing the nicotine-filled nebel with a Gauloise and sipping a beer with just too much head on it, I listened as the gigantic chords of Thrum’s Here I Am tumbled from the speakers, imagining what it must have been like to live here then, before the Wall fell, condemned by poverty or circumstance to inhabit the front line of a war between two nuclear superpowers.
A hand rummaging in my jacket pocket disturbed my reverie. I turned to swing for the guy, he ducked and I caught Tommy a peach square on the chin, knocking him right off his bar stool. The whole thing was so Three Stooges that even the pickpocket burst out laughing before he scarpered, thankfully without having first purloined my wallet.
I’d noticed Tommy earlier in the evening, shamelessly chatting up the barmaid in German—and making an irritatingly good job of it, too. It was only his reaction to being hit that made me realise he was Scottish.
“Ya cunt, ye,” he grimaced, as he sat on the floor, legs splayed, rubbing his jaw like a guy in an old Western. Then came the classic Caledonian countenance as remorse seeped through the alcohol: the eyes grew large, the palms of his hands faced towards me.
“Sorry, pal. Ah didnae realise that was yer burd.”
Tommy was a shitkicker from the east end of Glasgow with a tongue as sharp as Gordon Strachan’s and a suspicion that anyone who hadn’t been brought up Catholic was a raging Orangeman, or was at the very least in the masons. At first, I’d tried to take him on at the verbals, using lofty words I’d only heard my housemaster use, but he not only knew them all, he knew what they meant as well. When we talked politics, I spouted the capitalist dogma I’d rote-learned from Mr McWhirter, my economics teacher, and Tommy tore it apart. A scholar of Connolly and Maclean, he was a throwback to the ‘70s, the last of the self-educated socialists, with an answer for everything I could throw at him.
Tommy’s gift of the gab extended to having learned German in about three months, which annoyed the hell out of me—I’d been there a year when I first met him and I was bloody middle class, yet this wee gadgie could rattle off quotes from Marx whilst mine still only stretched to the few pleasantries required to secure a beer and a smoke. Mind you, learning the lingo was more of a necessity for Tommy than it was for me: his Dennistoun Scots was thick and unintelligible to most Germans, whereas Edinburgh Academy had robbed me of my native accent and replaced it with an easily understood, nondescript mid-Atlantic English that I had come to hate bitterly but could do little to change, no matter how many times I heard the phrase “but you don’t sound Scottish”. That one always cut me to the core.
Tommy called me “Diet”, a dual accusation that covered both my being a Hearts fan—he saw us as the low-fat, watered-down, Edinburgh version of Rangers—and the fact that I tended to carry a wee bit excess weight. I wasn’t sure what Tommy considered the worse offence, the football team or the fatness.
“I was a prop forward at school,” I explained.
“You were a whit?” he replied.
Though we didn’t see eye to eye on many things, Tommy and I bonded over being patronised by expat Englishmen.
“Why don’t you just use your English credit card?”
“You mean my British credit card.”
“Oh, don’t get all chippy. You know what I mean.”
Over time, we realised that there were, in actual fact, some people in the world who realised Scotland and England were different countries. They were called “Scottish people”. So we began to let a lot slide, though kilt and bagpipe references were always punished with extreme prejudice.
Tommy and I differed on Britishness. Mine was never in question. My father was in the forces and had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, although he was never into any of the jingoistic Billy Boy shit that I knew Tommy suspected me of. Tommy’s family was Irish Catholic and defiantly anti-British, although that hadn’t stopped most of them voting Labour their whole lives.
“’Mon, Diet! Hitch up that fuckin’ apron ae yours and get yer fat arse up this hill!”
I hadn’t had cause to hit Tommy again after that night in Berlin but now, trudging up sopping Ben Lomond in the pre-dawn darkness, I was thinking it might be a good idea. Only thoughts of my dad, a military man who abhorred violence, kept me in check. In the pub last night in Glasgow, Tommy had said he’d never forgotten watching the sunrise from the mountain’s peak as a kid. We’d made a drunken pact to do it today and now I was hungover, dressed in heavy climbing gear and stuck halfway up a hillside whilst Tommy bounced up the mountain in his fucking trainers. And he was going on about the government. Again.
“Thing is, big man,” Tommy shouted without turning round, “that’s another war they fuckers doon there have led us intae wi’oot oor consent. Pittin’ the likes ay your faither in danger wi’oot ever goin’ near the front lines themselves.”
“My dad’ll be all right, he’s not going to Ukraine. They’ve stationed him at Faslane.”
“And that’s another ‘hing,” Tommy bulldozed on, “we wouldnae even huv they subs if we’d voted Yes.”
“And we’d be an even bigger target for the Russians, shit-for-brains.”
“A bigger target? We wouldnae be a target at aw wi’oot they weapons.”
“You’re a fuckin’ weapon,” I said, mimicking his Glasgow accent.
“Shut it, Gerard Butler.”
I couldn’t have retorted even if I’d wanted to. Panting and parched, I stopped and bent over, hands on knees, mouth gaping, and cast a glance southwest towards Faslane. There was still no hint of dawn and I thought of black submarines in black waters and my father, pensive, alert, keeping watch over them and over us.
“Too many Guinness last night, ya fat flute-playin’ nancy boy?” yelled Tommy, who was now a good 50 yards ahead and slaloming up the mountain the way I remembered boys running up the old terracing at Murrayfield in the days before they put in the seats.
“’Mon, it’s no’ far noo. First one up gets the first toke.”
I was damned if I was going to let that spindly wee ginger git beat me. Seeking inspiration, I thought back to my rugby days. Mr Farquharson had always told us to visualise our goals. He had an old-school, Miss-Jean-Brodie Morningside accent from the days when rich Scotsmen tried to approximate themselves to the English rather than the Americans.
“Boys, it is ebsyootly imperative to viz-ualise one’s tergets before the metch begins. Scoring the try, dropping the goal, making the teckle. Now, go on, leds, get out there and let’s get this game won!”
Inhaling a deep breath through my nostrils, I viz-ualised the sweet hit of that joint and blitzed by Tommy just before we hit the peak. At the top, I danced around the cairn before all the energy suddenly drained from me and I collapsed backwards on top of my rucksack. Tommy arrived, panting, and burst out laughing.
“You look like a big Proddy tortoise!” he said as I rolled around helplessly, arms flailing.
I smiled triumphantly up at him. “Not bad for a fat bastard though, was it?” I said.
“Never knew ye had it in ye,” Tommy replied, eyes gleaming. “Ah thought they must’ve pit in a vendy up here, the rate you were gaun.”
Tommy eventually pulled me up, though not before he’d taken a picture of me with his phone.
“Gonnae Instragram fuck oot that later.”
We sat facing east, waiting for the sun to rise. I leaned over towards Tommy with the joint in my mouth. The click of his lighter seemed deafening amidst the total calm that surrounded us and the flame seared through the darkness, illuminating his blue eyes, which pulsed with post-exercise vitality. I took a long drag and leaned back against the cairn tired and satisfied, my hangover seeming to ebb away as the marijuana made its way through my body.
As we sat, I recalled the summer of 2010. A long, hot day had ebbed into dusk and Tommy and I were sat on the old Allied radar station at Teufelsberg, an artificial hill outside Berlin made from thousands of tonnes of rubble collected after the end of World War II. Its name meant “devil’s mountain” in English but the view that evening was celestial. We dangled our legs over the open sides of the decaying old building and looked out over the city, its trademark TV Tower sparkling in the low sun. Behind us, techno music throbbed hypnotically as a warm smell like colitas rose up through the air. As the chemicals began to take their effect, I looked at Tommy with love and thought how ridiculous it was that I’d had to come all the way to Berlin to befriend a working-class Scottish person.
Atop Ben Lomond, Tommy held out his hand and I passed him the joint. He nodded eastwards.
Taking a long draw, he settled back into position, a satisfied half-smile on his face. I looked at him, sitting atop a mountain in his jeans and filthy Reeboks as pleased as punch, like some sort of gadgie Edmund Hillary, and was glad I’d had the good fortune to knock him off his stool that day. The first rays of sunshine began to lick the landscape.
“Jist like it wis when ah wis wee,” said Tommy, without looking round. “Schön, oder?”
“Wunderschön,” I confirmed.
Those German words were the last Tommy and I spoke to one another. As the beauty of Scotland slowly unveiled itself, a blast from the southwest threw us onto our faces, melting our clothes and burning the flesh on our backs.Follow @corriganwriter