Grenzgebiet

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.

“Still nothin’.”

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.

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Kathleen

As usual, Kathleen had the heating on full and the front room sweltered. Mickey leant back on the old settee and blew out his cheeks. It was the first time he had eaten meat in six months and his gran’s roast chicken was lying heavy in his stomach. The last time he’d eaten meat had been here, too; there was no point in telling her he’d become vegetarian. It would only make her anxious.

In an effort not to look at the pile of Classics, Gold bars and Tunnock’s tea cakes slowly melting on the table in front of him, Mickey turned his attention to the photographs on the walls. Amidst the smiling graduations and posed birthdays lay his favourite picture, a black-and-white shot of his grandfather in military regalia taken about a month before he was killed in Normandy.

The rest of the room was brown and cream and dripping in Catholicism. By the hall door was a crucifix with a bowl of holy water attached underneath. Above the mantelpiece was a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, on the wall adjoining the kitchen a portrait of Pope John Paul II. Mickey’s friends’ grandmothers had decorated their homes in exactly the same way, and not one of them had updated the picture of the Pope when Joseph Ratzinger succeeded John Paul in 2005.

“There’s no way ah’m puttin’ up a picture ae that bloody Nazi in here, it’d be an insult to your grandfather,” Kathleen had explained.

Beside Mickey on the settee lay copies of the Scottish Daily Mail and the Scottish Catholic Observer. Presented with this literary Sophie’s Choice, Mickey had declined to read either, despite Kathleen’s prompting.

“Huv a read at them while ah make the tea. Remember, you loved the papers when you were wee. You were always that clever.”

The front page of the Daily Mail carried an unflattering picture of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond alongside a statesmanlike shot of Alistair Darling, the leader of the pro-UK Better Together movement.

DARLING WARNS OF BORDER CONTROLS IN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND

Don’t be so silly, Darling, thought Mickey in a Stephen Fry voice as his gran appeared with the tea.

“There ye go, son,” said Kathleen, setting his tea down in front of him in one of her trademark china cups before waddling over to her armchair.

“Thanks, Gran.”

“You not hungry?”

“Still full after ma tea.”

“Not touched your biscuits or your papers… I think there’s something wrong with you, Brendan, son,” said Kathleen, with a twinkle in her eye.

“Mickey, Gran.”

“Aye, Mickey. That’s whit ah says.”

Mickey conceded.

“Are ye warm enough, son?”

“Yeah, it’s just nice,” said Mickey, sweat pishin’ aff him.

“Ah shouldnae even have that fire on but it’s been too cold this winter no’ tae,” said Kathleen, staring ruefully at her decrepit electric heater.

Emmerdale’s theme tune—a belter, Mickey thought—brought the conversation to an end. Kathleen would intermittently volunteer observations on the plot—“She’s havin’ it away wi’ him, he’s winchin’ her, and he’s havin’ it off wi’ him, would you believe”—without ever averting her gaze from the screen. Mickey knew better than to interject. As Kathleen became absorbed by the show, bottom lip jutting out and brow furrowing in concentration, Mickey reluctantly reached for the Daily Mail and began to leaf through it.

Amidst the usual weather scare stories and paeans to long-deceased royalty was an “essay” warning of the inevitable flood of Romanians and Bulgarians into the UK now that both those countries had joined the EU. It was by one of the paper’s more outspoken columnists, a man named Andy Rattigan.

Mickey noted the by-line with a smile. In another lifetime, Rattigan had been Mickey’s boss at the local Burger King and was always a model of politeness to Vikram, Conchita and Sylvain in the kitchen, especially on busy nights. Mickey wondered if Rattigan thought he’d moved up in the world since.

“I’m glad your papa’s not around to see that Salmond,” said Kathleen, gesturing to the front page of the paper as the Emmerdale credits rolled. “He’s another bloody Hitler, you mark my words.

Mickey glanced around his gran’s meagre front room. It was exactly how he remembered it when he was a boy. He hadn’t noticed the damp then, but he knew the creaks and clanks of the electric fire only too well. In his infant fascination, he had kept trying to touch it and his gran had smacked him when he wouldn’t listen to her warnings. He had never forgotten that moment, the first time he had seen a grown-up cry.

Everything in the room seemed smaller now, especially his gran. Whilst he had grown tall and strong, she seemed to have shrunk and withered imperceptibly over the years, so that her armchair engulfed her like a raggedy brown throne.

“Gran, can I ask you something?”

“’Course ye can, pet.”

“You’ve voted Labour all your life—“

“Ma father drummed it intae us—“

“I know.”

Mickey cut her off before she had the chance to launch into the full story. He had read an article once in which fans of Paul McCartney explained that he had told the same stories so often in interviews, they had been able to assign each one a number.

“Did you see Paul on Parky tonight?”

“Yeah, he was great.”

“What did he do?”

 “Oh, he did four, eight and 12.”

Mickey and his brother Brendan had done the same thing with his gran. Ma Father Drummed It Intae Us was KSSY4—Kathleen Sweeney Stock Yarn 4.

“But, Gran, this whole area’s voted Labour for years and you’ve said it yourself, it’s just decayed and decayed.”

“That’s got mair tae dae wi’ the Pakis than wi’ Labour, son. Believe it or not, this was a nice area before they moved in.”

“This was an Irish area.”

“Aye, that’s whit ah says.”

“And the locals didn’t like you when your mum and dad moved in.”

“No, they didnae. Don’t talk nonsense, son, it disnae suit ye.”

Kathleen hauled herself out of her chair, shuffled to the mantelpiece and picked up the photograph of her late husband.

“Your grandfather joined up the day war was declared,” she said proudly.

KSSY7. Your great-grandfather said no son of his would ever fight under the Union Jack…

“Your great-grandfather said no son of his would ever fight under the Union Jack,” Kathleen continued, “but he signed up anyway because he wanted to fight the fascists. And you’re comparin’ him tae bloody Pakis!”

She set the photograph back down on the mantelpiece and turned to Mickey.

“Are you sure you won’t take a biscuit, Brendan?”

“No, I’d best be off, Gran,” said Mickey.

“OK, son. Let me just clear this stuff away.”

As Kathleen scuttled into the kitchen with her congealed mound of confectionary, Mickey checked his pockets for his bus fare. As he did so, a pound escaped from his grasp and disappeared down one of the cracks between his gran’s ancient green sofa cushions. When he was wee, Kathleen had always kept colouring-in books for him under the cushions. He pulled them instinctively before letting out a gasp.

Underneath was a clutch of letters from the gas company, the electricity company and the council, among others, all daubed with ominous red ink. Mickey stared for a minute before the sound of his gran’s feet shuffling across the kitchen floor stirred him into action. Snatching up the pound coin, he hastily rearranged the cushions before Kathleen could see him.

Kathleen opened the kitchen door and shot Mickey an odd look.

“Everything OK, son?”

Mickey realised he had tears in his eyes.

“Aye, just my dust allergy playing up again, Gran. I’ll be all right when I get outside.”

“It’ll be that stupit old fleabag ae a settee of mine,” said Kathleen, shooting the couch an accusatory glance. “Long overdue a new one.”

At the door, Mickey hugged his gran for longer than usual and planted a kiss on her cheek.

“Och, ye’re a plaster!” exclaimed Kathleen, eyes glowing. “Gie’s yer hand.”

Mickey held out his hand and his grandmother pressed a ten-pound note into it.

***

In the lift, Mickey donned his headphones and scanned the walls for an update on local IRA-UVF relations to a Twilight Sad soundtrack.

And is the past outside

Or in this lovely home? 

Exiting his gran’s block of flats, he looked at the kids hanging about in the swing park outside: overweight, trackied up, fixing him with proto-hard man stares as he walked by in his fancy headphones. He felt the tears well up again.

They’re standing outside

And they’re, they’re looking in

Mickey cast a glance back at his grandmother’s pitiful old tower block.

The kids are on fire in the bedroom

Aye, thought Mickey. It was time. Come September, it was time.

The Corner Of Victoria & Albert

On the corner of Victoria and Albert, I watched as the rain washed the blond sandstone of the buildings opposite a brooding black. Although only mid-September, it was already cold and the fierce wind made my flat’s single panes rattle in their frames. I shivered, not daring to glance at the radiator. Pulling on another jumper, I sat back down at my desk.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.

Dirty, thick rain clouds had darkened the sky and the television lit the room with its empty glow. I glanced at the clock on my laptop: 4pm. Glasgow, with this unseasonably pish weather you are truly spoiling us. Grimacing, I switched on my table lamp. The imaginary electricity meter ticked round in my mind at a frightening pace. I reached for my phone and texted Paul.

Sorry, mate. Skint. No pint for me tonight.

I had been looking forward to that pint, too, even though Paul would have inevitably taken me to the Queen’s Park Café, a rampant Celtic shop. I liked the pub despite its clientele of plastic Pearses and cardboard Connollys, always fighting one perceived injustice or another. All wood panels and pints of 70 shilling, the Queen’s was your classic old man’s bar; the fact that it considered itself upmarket enough to call itself a café told you everything about Vicky Road’s idea of sophistication.

Viewed from Queen’s Park’s lofty summit, Victoria Road was a magnificent Imperial set piece, a marvel of city planning, but its apparent grandeur didn’t withstand closer inspection. Once a domain of the wealthy, the street’s decline mirrored that of the Empire that built it. In spite of its proximity to Shawlands, it had resisted almost all attempts at infiltration by immigrant West Enders. Amongst the motley collection of charity shops, bookies, pawn shops, cash converters, off licences and pubs lay its sole concession to gentrification, an over-priced deli that was as out of place here as its owner’s rounded R’s.

Outside, the street lamps were still off, although the gloom showed no signs of lifting. The only light on the street came from passing cars and the neon sign above the Bank of Scotland that read: CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS. Below it, grey men shuffled slowly, heads bowed. They’d be as well turning to religion, I thought: divine intervention was the only way anything would change on this road. The names might have been different but the shops were the same as they had been for years: Presto had become Aldi, William Hill had become Paddy Power, Abbey National had become Santander. The deli was new, mind. And the Cheque Centre.

Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

What was that damn song? It had been in my head for days.

I tried to focus on my laptop screen. The cursor blinked back vacantly. Without the reward of a pint afterwards, my motivation had vanished. I looked down ruefully at the Queen’s. Its tables, left outside in the futile hope of an Indian summer, stood forlornly in the rain. Springing up, I fetched my wallet from the hall table and counted the change inside twice. Two pound twenty. Not enough for a pint these days, even on Vicky Road. I shouldn’t have had one yesterday, I thought.

Into the blue again, after the money’s gone.

Although I was brassic, I had ducked into the Queen’s on the way home last night, just popped in to see what condition their sedition was in. The long faces and funereal atmosphere meant I didn’t need to wait for confirmation from the TV.  Even the Saltire bunting seemed to sag from the ceiling. Credit where it’s due, I thought: if this referendum had done anything it was to put Scotland flags in Celtic boozers for the first time in living memory.

Returning a few despondent nods of acknowledgement, I had ordered a half pint of Guinness and sat at the bar for a while, quietly glorying in their defeat like an away fan with a ticket for the home section. Some of them were even greetin’. Serve you all right for calling me a unionist, I had thought. I’d never been a unionist in my life.

I looked at the clock. 4.30. The cursor blinked impatiently. I typed:

A CAN-DO ATTITUDE IS ALL YOU NEED.

Pish. Highlight, delete.

A smooth English voice broke my concentration. On the television, a Cameron spoke of his delight that Scotland’s people had done the sensible thing. I winced. Self-righteous prick. We did it in spite of you, not because of you.

The Etonian strains were drowned out by altogether more guttural singing from outside.

“You can stick your independence up your arse!”

I looked out. A group of Rangers supporters, on their way to Ibrox for the Friday night game, were marching along the middle of the road, caring as little for the downpour as they were for the oncoming traffic. Bedecked in Union flags and Red Hands of Ulster, they were already in party mood. One boy, face painted red, white and blue, jumped on a car bonnet as it stopped at the lights.

“No fuckin’ surrender!” he shouted triumphantly at the terrified motorist.

That’s what a unionist looked like, Paul, I thought.

The Rangers supporters marched onward, their chants growing fainter as they left Govanhill for Govan.

You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?

Sitting down at my desk, I tried to identify the song in my head but was disturbed by the bleep of a text message. It was Paul.

Come on, mate. I’ll buy you one. You’ll be wanting to celebrate the night anyway, will you not?

 I glanced again at the Queen’s. A young boy in a kilt staggered drunkenly along the pavement beside it. Another casualty of last night, I thought.

And you may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?

Stuttering to a halt, the boy slumped down outside the Cheque Centre and sat motionless as tears washed the blue Saltire from his face. A man in the queue, Union flag wrapped around his shoulders, tried in vain to help the boy to his feet but, finding him uncooperative, returned to the queue with a shrug.

And you may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?

I had the slogan now. The cursor blinked expectantly. I placed my fingers on the keyboard and wrote:

YES, WE CAN. SUPPORT THE GOVANHILL FOOD BANK’S CANNED FOOD DRIVE.

On the TV, the Cameron’s face contorted into a smirk. I scrambled across the room for the remote. Unable to find it, I pulled the plug out at the wall. Silence.

I hit save on my laptop as a huge gust of wind caused my window panes to clatter like a freight train, shattering the quiet. I stared disbelievingly at the weather for a moment before pulling on last year’s winter jacket and hurrying down the close stairs.

You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. 

Talking Heads. That was it. Talking Heads. Once In A Lifetime.

I opened the close door and stepped out into the rain, the refrain playing on repeat in my head.

Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

On the corner of Victoria and Albert, grey men shuffled slowly, heads bowed.