Short Stuff

Frank’s Café

It was1932. Gianfranco Ginesi emerged from the station and looked cautiously around him. Another man came up to him and embraced and kissed him on both cheeks. That was the first thing people noticed. No man ever hugged another man. No man ever kissed another man. Strange people these Eyeties. He was wearing a jacket you could spit peas through and it was November.
He next appeared working in Louie’s Fish and Chip shop. Although having hardly a word of English he soon became proficient in assembling fish suppers, sprinkling salt and vinegar on them before sealing them with last week’s paper. Gianfranco soon became Frank and then wee Frank.
Later he married Louie’s daughter and it was decided that it had all been arranged before he had arrived in Scotland.
They kept themselves to themselves. The only conversation with them took place across the counter. Few spoke to them when they were outside the shop.
Maybe that was what was wrong.
They had children. A boy and a girl.
After four years Frank opened his own shop not far away from Louie’s. This was the first café you had ever seen. You could buy ice cream and you could even sit in at a table and have the ice cream in a glass with lemonade. Few people knew anything about the place Frank came from but they could get a small taste of it. There had never been anything like it and he built the café up into a successful business.
Louie’s son was rumoured to have opened a fancy restaurant in Glasgow. Supposed to cater to the well off. Somebody had seen it in one of the streets running off Sauchiehall Street. White tablecloths and heavy silver cutlery. A cut above fish suppers served in last week’s Bulletin.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Davy Ross was bad. Everybody agreed on that. He was also a hard man. Everybody agreed on that too. Davy Ross was a wife beater. This was not unusual and although few approved nobody interfered.
You just didn’t.
It was tacitly agreed.
Men said it was a private matter. Women said she had been well warned.
Police wouldn’t interfere in a “domestic”, even in the highly unusual event of a complaint being made. After all, it was not unknown for some policemen to beat their wives.
Women would help where they could without interfering, doing the victim’s washing or taking her turn of the stairs when she was ashamed to show her damaged face in public.
When despair overcame them there was always suicide. This was in the days of coal gas.
Davy Ross’s wife had gassed herself.
“Might have blown the whole fuckin’ close up.”
The women just looked at each other and shook their heads.
Their two children were taken in and brought up by her parents.
Davy Ross was a big man in the Lodge. Marched on the twelfth. At the front, throwing the pole up in the air with big strong riveter’s arms. You watched, mouth open, as it spun seemingly defying gravity before arriving back safely in his hand every time, several paces on from where it was launched. While it was up in the air the tension was palpable, the noise of flutes and drums rising as they passed the bottom end of Fenian Alley.
They had altered the route after being ambushed one year in a narrow street when the contents of chamber pots were thrown from upper flats in a largely catholic inhabited tenement. The march had broken up in confusion, as the enraged faeces and urine stained covered marchers ran up the closes only to be met by a hail of rivets taken home from the shipyard.
The Taigs had won that one.
Didn’t mean a thing when the yards opened on Monday. They still had the menial jobs – black squad stuff. Nobody ever knew a catholic toolmaker or draughtsman did they? Still, a few scores had been settled that day.
Ross had been coming back through Glasgow after a football match one Saturday just before the war broke out. He had been for a drink on the way from the ground and was weaving his way down to Central Station for the train home.
A warm light bathing the pavement caught his eye. Looking in the window he recognised the fish and chip owner Louie’s son. He looked sleek and handsome as he smiled at the customers, chatting to them and expertly pouring wine into their glasses.
Fuckin’ Tallies – getting above thersels, thought Davy bitterly.
That and his team’s poor result contributed to the beating his wife received that night – for what? Dinner not ready? No clean shirt ready for him to change into before going out for more drink? Just because he could? Davy Ross prided himself on his appearance, no doubt about that. Smart looking man.

* * * * * * * * * *

The crowd shuffling around opposite Frank’s Café had been quietly increasing in number as the evening drew on and now exceeded a hundred or so. They had started to gather after the announcement on the radio earlier that day that Italy had declared war on Britain and France. Churchill had told the police to “collar the lot”, in reference to the Italian community in Britain.
Two policemen confronted them – Sergeant Davidson, always referred to as Big Toerag or out of his hearing as “that Teuchter bastard”, and a young constable. Toerag was a hard man. Toerag was famous for fighting challengers on his day off, square go fashion, stripped to the waist.
Big Skipper Anderson had started drinking early. A hard enough man in his day, the drink and his declining success as a man of violence had begun to affect his mental capacity. He had been trying to rouse the crowd to attack the café in the wake of the announcement of Italy entering the war. The mob was willing to do this but no one wanted to be the first to try and pass the indestructible Davidson.
At last, inflamed by his own rhetoric and mistakenly believing that the crowd was behind him, Skipper charged at Davidson shouting out to the crowd to follow him. The crowd remained motionless as Toerag felled the big man, wobbly with drink, with a measured blow to the stomach. Stepping to the side he let Anderson fall against the wall beside the café door and casually hit him behind the knee with his wooden truncheon. Anderson emitted a low groan as he sunk to the pavement.
The policeman turned to face the crowd. “Why don’t you all go to your homes?” he said in his deceptively soft West Highland accent. “I don’t want to have to do this to anybody else.”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Go home.”
The crowd started to shuffle away and the two policemen half carried, half dragged their charge over to the black police van. Sergeant Davidson opened the back of the van with his free hand and they threw Anderson inside. They closed and locked the door, climbed into the van and with a final hard look at the slowly dispersing crowd, drove to the police station.
Davy Ross had been quietly watching these events. He calculated that the police had just gone through the motions. Done enough to satisfy their role as officers of the law. He reckoned that similar events such as this were happening all over the country. The last evacuees had only returned to the country from the fiasco of Dunkirk just days before and feelings were running high against all foreigners.
When the van had disappeared Davy Ross shouted to the crowd “Whit are ye waiting on. Let’s wreck the place.”
The crowd quickly re-formed and started to cross the road towards the café.
As they were halfway across the street the door of the café opened and Frank appeared.
The crowd stopped liked a large ungainly animal, as it tried to absorb what they were seeing into their collective consciousness.
Frank was holding a small Union Jack in one hand and some papers. He must have had the little flag since the coronation in 1936.
“Why you do this to me? I am your neighbour. I am a British citizen. Look, these are my naturalisation papers. I don’t like Mussolini either.”
For a moment it looked as if the crowd would disperse. Davy Ross could sense the wavering, the crowd collectively feeling shame at their intentions, caught between their innate individual decency and that madness which rules the mob. Ross knew he had to do something quickly or the momentum was lost. He picked up a stone and threw it with the strength and accuracy that made him such a success in front of the Orange Band. It struck Frank on the forehead above one eye. He went down on his knees, holding himself from falling flat on the ground with one hand as he felt the open gash on his head with the other, the blood flooding into his eyes.
Some looked down pityingly as they strode past the injured man into the café, their collective will re-established on plunder. One even paused and leaned down beside Frank, giving him his dirty red and white bandana to staunch the blood. “Better get tae the hospital wee man, that looks bad. Yer gonnae need stitches in that,”

The following morning Frank came down to the shop to see what could be saved from the wreckage. The gash on his head was nasty and had needed a dozen stitches. The bandage was stained red with the blood that had seeped from the wound.
When he walked through the door into the wrecked shop his gaze fell on three women scavenging through the debris picking up stray sweets from the floor.
Pausing in their act of petty plunder they looked awkward and ashamed. As they rose from the floor one of the women looked pityingly at Frank.
“Its no’ you we’re against Frank, its Mussolini.”
Frank looked at her without any animosity, just a tired sadness.
As they slunk out of the shop they heard Frank say “Its no Mussolini pay for the fuckin’ sweeties”.

Homer Mon Hero

Near midnight somewhere in Woodlands Road in a taxi they were sharing, Maggie leaned forward and slapped Mike not once, but twice. Hard.
It is always difficult to trace the start of a problem between two people. Some will say they saw it coming, they were never suited, she was always wrapped too tight or he was intolerant. I couldn’t pretend to that kind of clairvoyance. It was only through talking to them both in an attempt to prevent things becoming irreconcilable that I could see when the relationship started to go bad and then, sadly, the point at which it just fell apart.
I don’t know that Mike had been too happy moving to the West End. He owned a small engineering company and was a practical man. Not a philistine although it is perhaps fair to say that he carried his learning lightly. He loved jazz and lived for the annual Glasgow Jazz Festival to which Maggie trailed along dutifully. Once, after a concert he commented on the brilliance of a solo. Maggie asked if that was the bit that sounded like the saxophone player had just been thrown down the stairs. Mike shrugged. He dutifully followed her to the opera and ballet. He mostly managed to suppress his yawns.
Maggie had a successful career in social work and had translated this to a position as a lecturer in one of the former polytechnics now a University. Both in their forties, they were about to prove the old saw that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. They had met through the contact page of the Herald; she talked into an entry by friends, he getting in touch after a sad evening spent in the Horse Shoe bar followed by a taxi home to an empty flat.
She had found him at first “refreshing”, never having met an engineer or businessman before. He had found her obvious intelligence and independence a contrast to his first wife’s petit-bourgeois snobbery.
Mike had been a novelty at first amongst Maggie’s friends but the first cracks were appearing. His following of Glasgow Rangers just didn’t go down well. West End soirees tend to disdain football although support of Partick Thistle is, for some reason considered acceptable.
The first wound was opened, as they so often are, on a Saturday night when people dine well if perhaps unwisely. Mike had endured a goalless and dismal draw after which the two had met in Glasgow and watched a film at the GFT. The film was French, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre – Maggie’s choice. She was a big fan of French cinema and of Daniel Auteuil. You may remember it; remote French colony in early 19th century; man convicted of murder; no guillotine to hand so they have to await both guillotine and a trained operator. She had watched entranced, not having to look at the subtitles being competent in French. Mike had got lost halfway through and hadn’t even tried to pick up the thread.
They had gone on to a west end eatery. Mike later admitted hehad a few looseners in the bar before taking their table. Several bottles of wine accompanied the meal and this, together with the poor football result and a movie he hadn’t enjoyed brought on a mood of some truculence. He ordered a calvados and the bill. His mood was not improved when he noticed a woman at the next table texting. Mike hated people using mobile phones at the table. Maggie’s attempts at conversation had met with a non-committal response. She was finding this non-responsiveness intensely irritating.
”Daniel Auteuil is the greatest actor on the planet at this point in time” Maggie said. Mike had always found the phrase “at this point in time” intensely annoying. He liked to think that the precision he employed as an engineer was matched by a disciplined use of language.
“I was trying to start a conversation”, she added.
Mike didn’t reply but let Maggie’s remark hover over the table like a small dark cloud. As he drained the last of the calvados she averred that not only was Auteuil a great actor but that she couldn’t imagine a more refined and desirable man.
Mike told her not to be silly.
I don’t have to tell you that senior sociology lecturers detest above all else being called silly. Words tumbled forth. Maggie accused Mike of lacking both taste and sensitivity, putting this down to, as she put it, his spending his life “making widgets”. Mike accused Maggie of having a silly teenager’s crush on someone who spent his life reading words written by others. The sorry exchange touched bottom when Mike referred to the Gallic thespian as a member of the amphibian family in the order anura.
The woman at the next table had by this time stopped texting.
“Fine,” Maggie said. “Who in your opinion is a greater actor than Auteuil?
To this day Mike does not know what made him reply as he did. Perhaps it was her painstaking articulation of the actor’s surname. Perhaps it was the devil made him do it.
“Homer Simpson” he said, louder than he had intended.
The other diners had given up any pretence of ignoring these exchanges and parking their cutlery, were looking on, rapt. This beat anything on offer at The Oran Mor.
Maggie rose, somewhat stiffly it must be said and announced that she was going home. Mike settled the bill and found her outside looking up Byres Road trying to pick out a taxi for hire. Realising he had behaved badly he tried to lighten the mood, as men sometimes do, by adopting a clowning attitude. As a cab pulled over he stepped out from the pavement and in a gesture of exaggerated gallantry opened the door. Maggie icily ignored him and entered closing the door before he could get in.
“Right!” he muttered under his breath.
He waved down another taxi and instructed the driver to take him to the riverside flat he had bought after signing over the sandstone mansion in Kilmacolm to his first wife.
He stayed up long enough for the heating to warm the flat up, and it has to be said, quaffed a few unmeasured malts followed by a troubled sleep.
Maggie awoke next morning with a furry mouth, headache and the right side of the bed unoccupied. She thought on what had transpired the previous evening as she brushed her teeth. She went over not just last night but the previous few weeks. The department had been hell. Cuts to be made, a harassment charge against a staff member and massive curriculum changes to be implemented ahead of next year. She was usually generous in exchanges of opinion even when they became heated and would overlook all but the most cheap and personal attacks. With the rising tide of violence in the city she also had visions of Mike lying in a lane somewhere bleeding badly.
When he answered the phone it was obvious that it’s ringing had wakened him. Still, he was glad she had rung. He certainly wasn’t going to call her. She said they had both been under a lot of strain recently, it was a silly argument, draw a line under the thing and take it from there. She was dimly aware that he hadn’t actually met her accommodating attitude halfway
They agreed to meet in Princes Square for lunch. Maggie noticed that Mike still hadn’t actually shown any remorse for preferring an underachieving, beer-swilling cartoon character to one of the greatest European actors of his generation, but she let it pass putting it down to male pride and his unmistakeable hangover.
The next few weeks passed agreeably enough although there was a noticeable coolness between them. The next social occasion they attended was a drinks party in the staff dining room at the university. The university was hosting a reception for a group of staff from a middle-eastern university in a country rich in oil but far from the top of Human Rights Watch’s index of enlightened governments. The reception had been provided by the students from the Hospitality department. The canapés were all delicious and professionally and discreetly served by students. Mike it has to be said did not approve of such innovations as Hospitality being included as a University discipline. He was old-fashioned enough to feel that universities should stick to more intellectually demanding disciplines usually involving higher mathematics.
He had arranged to meet Maggie there having again been to Ibrox and spent the time between final whistle and the reception in the Horse Shoe Bar with old friends. He was in a relaxed and forgiving mood when he got there. So forgiving that he had decided to apologise for his behaviour of a fortnight ago. Finding himself in conversation with a colleague of his wife he spoke lightly about the misunderstanding as he referred to it. It has to be said that he did not find this young woman difficult to look at and as it happened she was not Maggie’s favourite colleague. They had disagreed in the past about the kind of thing only sociologists could be bothered to take the time to understand. Maggie had been standing a short distance away and only heard the bare bones of the conversation – “Some French actor”, “boring film”, “Homer Simpson” and immediately, if mistakenly, thought she was being ridiculed by her partner to a rival.
Spotting Maggie, Mike was about to magnanimously apologise when he saw the frozen look on her face. Shrugging his shoulders he turned away looking for a more agreeable companion.
The whole thing boiled over in the taxi they shared from the university. As near as I could reconstruct from conversations with them both, the exchange that led to the Maggie’s assault on Mike was something along the following lines.
“I can’t believe you were belittling me to a size zero airhead who only got where she is by sleeping with her lecturers!”
Mike could have explained the misunderstanding, but what the hell, his dander was up.
“I thought you believed in women sticking together and not, above all, taking cheap shots about each others appearance.”
Maggie tacked. “This all really comes down to your pathetic inability to see Daniel Auteuil ‘s brilliance. How could any lucid person seriously say they prefer a little yellow beer-swilling underachieving cartoon character. She concluded with what in Mike’s opinion was a cheap shot at Homer’s overbite.
“That little guy has more talent than any soap-dodging Frog” Mike said slowly.
The smacks followed
“You – pusillanimous cretin!”
Seeing his baffled look she snapped. “Google it!”
The taxi driver was not unfamiliar with acts of violence in his cab, but this was new. Woodlands Road, obviously well-off people. Nevertheless he pulled over to the kerb, opened the interior window and said, “Wan or baith o’ ye. Oot the cab. Noo!
Mike leaned forward and dropped a ten-pound note through the window before exiting uncertainly into the night.
I tried, God knows I tried to bring Maggie and Mike together again.
“As long as that man”, as she put it, “persists in his sad delusion that a pathetic caricature created by a person from a nation noted for their incomprehension of irony compared in any way to the greatest film actor of his era there is no chance of reconciliation”.
The best I managed was to arrange a time when Maggie would be absent so that Mike could remove his belongings to his riverside flat.
“There is more wit and wisdom in an episode of the Simpsons than you will encounter in a whole season of French films at The Cosmo” was his last word on the subject as he swallowed a large Macallan.
I always found Mike’s insistence on giving the GFT its old name quite endearing and in a way fixed him in a happier time and place.
Last time I saw Maggie she had taken up with a fellow lecturer. They had much more in common: an allotment in Kelvinside, visits to the opera and ballet. She just, I don’t know, looked more comfortable with him.
Mike advertised in the personals for a mate: “Homer Simpson WLTM his Marge. NS, GSOH. No opera-goers need apply”
Seems to have found her too. The woman I spotted him with last week performing in karaoke session in the Horse Shoe was definitely more “of the people”, more Bacardi than Bordeaux, Elaine Paige than Lesley Garrett.
Last time I saw them Mike was wearing a Simpsons tee shirt with a sad-looking Homer saying – “Just once I’d like someone to call me sir without adding ‘you’re making a scene”.
This business had taken its toll on me too. Blessed are the peacemakers? Don’t you believe it! This affair had worked its way deep down into my darker recesses.
The other night I woke up in a sweat. I dreamed that Daniel Auteuil, dressed as a 19th century army officer had executed Homer Simpson by guillotine and was holding up his little yellow head, blood dripping from his neck, to a baying crowd of West End Guardianistas. I’m sure I spotted Maggie at the front of the crowd.

The Stones at Calanais

It had been a bad year. Illness had come to the island, brought by a trader from the big land to the east, people said, a poxy looking fellow selling cheap tat. The first to fall sick were the family at whose house he had stayed. It had then spread slowly but purposefully across the community weeding out the old and the young indiscriminately before eventually burning itself out. The fishing had not been good either recently, with many accidents. The gloomy one had hinted heavily that unwise consumption of the distilled spirit was at the bottom of it but he would say that wouldn’t he, the miserable wee man.
A chough had been killed and dismembered by the Necromancer and the outlook wasn’t propitious. His prophecies, it must be said, tended to chime with the prevailing mood in the community. Perhaps that was why he managed to keep the job.
The worst of it however was when speculators from the land to the east conspired to bring down the Sharks Tooth, their currency and the means of determining the worth of everything that was traded between the people.
The council met. They talked long into the night, night after night. They were unable to come up with anything. Reluctantly they decided to call on the red-bearded one. He had retired from all his activities some years ago to live in a cave on the northern part of the island. No one could claim to understand him, the long silences, the smile that seemed to be at some joke only he had heard.
He listened to what the council had to say and sat quietly, tugging gently at his beard. He got slowly to his feet and looked at each of the council of elders in turn. After what seemed an eternity he spoke.
“I will go and think about what is to be done.” With that he turned and walked slowly back up the coast to his cave.
Five days later he returned and convened a meeting with the Council. When they were assembled he asked them to follow him down to the shore where the wet sand had been left behind by the tide.
When they were assembled he made a circle in the sand with a stick. Then he dragged a line through the centre of the circle with the stick, about five times longer at one end. Then he drew another line in the sand at right angles to the first one through the centre of the circle, the same length on either side of the perimeter. Then he placed stones along the straight lines and around the perimeter of the circle with equal spaces between them.
No one spoke. They knew better than to interrupt Redbeard whose temper was as ferocious and uncertain as his sarcasm was cutting.
“This is just a model of what I want to be built. It will stand in the field behind the village and will be one hundred paces long by thirty paces wide.”
“This is a job for the young men of the village. The work will take a long time and will be hard. I have had my eye on some big stones and I want to bring them from the north.”
“How big are the stones?” asked an elder.
“Some as big as three times the height of a man” Redbeard replied.
The Elders gasped.
“How will they get them from the north to here?” one asked.
“I will devise ways of doing this.”
“But to what purpose is this being built?” asked one Elder.
Redbeard just smiled.
And so the young men of the village set to work supervised by Redbeard, who it must be said was a most considerate boss, as long as everyone was working to the best of their abilities. He made very strict rules about how much ale could be consumed and that only at the middle and end of the day.
At first they had moved the stones by trying to roll them. Redbeard then devised a sled that could be pulled by teams taking turns as they tired.
After eight seasons had passed they had assembled the stones into position. They then dug holes and upended the stones into them, filling in the earth so that they stood proud.
There was a feeling of exultation when the work was finished. The young men of the village cheered Redbeard although they still had no notion of what they had built or why they had built it. It was the exultation that always accompanies the completion of any difficult task undertaken by a group of people. A bond had been formed between the young men that would never be broken. They had done backbreaking work and felt a satisfaction they could not explain.
There was a celebration to mark the completion of the work that lasted for seven days and during which much distilled spirit and ale was consumed along with roast deer meat and wild boar.
No one noticed Redbeard slipping quietly away during the first day.
All during the time that the work took, word had spread through the neighbouring islands and as far as the big land to the east and travelers had started to arrive. When they asked what was being built and why, the locals would just smile and turn away. The travelers however, paid for food and lodging at an exchange rate favourable to the Shark’s Tooth, which helped their recovering economy.
The Betrother, whose business had fallen off when the economy had declined and the young had started to live together without benefit of his offices, had noticed that the sun shone directly downwards into the circle around midday during summer. He canvassed the idea of betrothals to be held in the circle around mid-day. This became popular and the Betrother soon became prosperous again with the fees he charged. Word of this spread beyond the island and soon young people from all over the isles and beyond were coming to have their relationships blessed in this way. The friends of the young man and woman also came along and celebrated their last night before they took on the responsibility of marriage. They paid for food and lodging and so popular did this custom become that there was soon a roaring trade in the village.
Noticing this, the Midwife devised a custom whereby the newborn would have their foreheads moistened by the morning dew in the centre of the circle. It soon became the accepted way of welcoming the newborn to the world and it was considered that any child who did not experience this custom would be dogged by bad luck throughout their lives.
So famous did this custom become that soon newborn children not only in the village, but also beyond the island itself were carried to the stones to have their brows moistened. This brought further prosperity to those providing food and lodging.
The Gatekeeper to the Other World, not to be outdone soon came up with a ceremony, celebrated at sundown whereby the deceased were sent onwards to the Netherworld. The implication he heavily hinted at was that those not sent off in this
manner, would spend eternity as ghosts and come back to haunt their descendants. He too became prosperous and his burial rite also added to the village’s prosperity as people from far away brought the remains of their deceased to the island to be blessed.
After many seasons had passed the village became the richest place, not only on the island, but as far and away as the land to the east.
The fishing had recovered and the men of the village were able to build fleets of boats that could not only be used for fishing but for trading as far beyond as the Land to the East and the Northern Isles as well. The Shark’s Tooth was soon the dominant currency and the common means of determining the worth of all the items that were traded between the various communities.
Then word came to the village from a visitor who had chanced to visit Redbeard in his cave that he was unwell and not likely to survive much longer. Since the tenth anniversary of the completion of the standing stones was only weeks away, the Council of Elders decided to mark the occasion by inviting Redbeard to a special ceremony. When they arrived at his cave they were chastened to see that his health had declined and he was very frail. When they told him of their plan for a special ceremony he just smiled and shook his head. It was obvious that he was not long for this world. They were saddened to see this once powerful man reduced to the weak shell lying before them. They also felt ashamed when they remembered that they had soon forgotten about him when prosperity returned to them.
The leader of the Council, realising that time was short, asked the question that had been at the back of their minds for the last ten years.
“Redbeard” he said, “what meaning lies behind the standing stones?”
Redbeard lifted himself painfully onto one elbow and looked around the Elders.
“It is a bad thing for young men to be idle,” he said,
“Just that?” They gasped, amazed.
“Just that, and for the madness that is in it.”
And with that he turned away and never spoke again.

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