There’s this wee guy out buskin on the street, in the corner of my eye. I can see him through the glass of the lift and then again through the windaes of the shop. Makes me burn seein him. Not that the music’s bad. A’hm jist burnin. That’s whit bein a musician is, being jealous. But my jealousy’s no the normal kind. It’s a jealousy that I cannae dae anythin wae. Huvnae touched a geetar in aboot twenty year. Arthritis. No enough strength tae squeeze the strings. Tae much aching. Wish I could batter oot a wee tune.
It’s like quittin smoking.
“Press the up button,” the lady says politely, but there’s another element in there. Almost lit she cannae be fucked.
“Press the whit button?” I say. I can hardly hear her through this ridiculous plate glass. “Speak up, hen.” Glass is an annoying material to work wae. Tae easy ae damage. No flexible enough. No strong enough.
“The up button.”
She’s aboot the same height as me, that is to say she’s not particularly tall. Neat dreadlocks, black and green Specsavers’s uniform. A’d been ushered through the shinin, opening lobby and then curtly instructed in the ways ae sanitizing mah haunds, as if ah didnae ken at this point. It’s no as if mah very life depends upon it. Eejits. They condescended me aww the way in, hovering in the air in frontae me. Waggling their stupit wee fingers.
“The up button is on the right-hand side of the screen,” she’s got a sickly-sweet voice. I guess it must relax alottae folk, this faux, medical, sales, crap. A’d rather jist get talked to like a normal person. They blonde dreadlocks are quite cool, but. Ah still ken whit’s cool and whit’s no. The rooms fullae these backlit, transparent shelves covered in rows ae spectacles. Prices startin low on wan side and increasing across the room. I see wee bams on the cheap side and doddery yuppies on the other side checkin oot the latest in Gucci eyewear. Aww does the same hing anyways.
“Just press the screen with the tip of your finger,” the wumman says. It’s wan ae they wan-person disability lifts. The walls are all glass and there’s a control my-pad in the middle. When ah first came in, the lassie wae the dreadlocks had led me up a wee ramp, took the cane, and then telt me tae lean on a bar on wan side.
“Aye, aye,” I say.
I can still see that wee busker, must be aboot eighteen. He’s got a wee Roland amp and a Taylor acoustic. Love a good Taylor. I used tae play the Gibson, but my mate Richard had a Taylor. Nice, trebly resonance. Went well wae the deeper, warmer soonds oot the Gibson. A good tone this busker’s got. I turn back tae Dreadlocks. I don’t like the tone in her voice. Nobody’s goat any respect fer their elders these days. In fact, ah hink all the young yins blame us fer the current state of affairs. It’s not our fault… I don’t hink. We were jist as much idiots as they are now, but it’s got to be somebody’s fault. Way I see it, it’s jist the unfortunate way ae hings. It’s like wae glaciers and that. Path of least resistance. The way it’s always been. The easiest way.
“The up button,” she says.
“I heard you.” I peer down at the touch screen, squintin, and then press it wae conviction. I find that these machines respect conviction. The lift shudders and halts.
“You pressed the stop button.”
“I ken which button I pressed. Tell me which button tae press noo.” I fucking hate gawn to Specsavers. “Whit does the button look like?”
“An up arrow.”
I look doon. There’s wan that looks like an eye in a circle. Another that looks like a triangle, actually two triangles. I ken whit a triangle means, but the lassies pissin me right aff so I take mah time findin it. Pure hovering mah finger, like how she wiz hovering over me at the sanitising station. I press it and the floor vibrates upward. She sighs and starts on the stairs to the left, still brandishing mah cane.
I find, as an auld boy, a’hm always looking intae the background ae hings. Probably cause a’hm always in the background ae hings masel. I like to look at the wee centipedes that hing aboot the kitchen bin. I like to try to imagine whit their hinkin. “I have a thousand legs, and I live on a ceramic floor, but ceramic means nothing to me.” I guess that’s wan hing that’ll never change: the beasties. Even with aww their my-phones and their tweeters, the wee bugs are still buzzin intae their tenements, giving em grief. The most fleetin ae hings are the hings that last forever.
I mind being a young guy, in mah twenties. That Richard, mah boardin mate at the time, once asked, “How do we get rid of aww these beasties?” He wiz wearing his John Broons overalls. Pretty much everycunt ah kenned worked doon Broons. Mah Da wiz an overseer, so he goat all the Whitecrook lads joabs there. Except me that is.
“Keeping the fuckin place clean is how we get rid of the fuckin beasties, Richard, that’s how,” a’d said. I wiz young, trim, in a nice sweater. Needed warm clathes since we couldnae afford heatin. I always thought I wiz smarter than Richard. Felt superior since I wiz the wan oot playing the guitar every day, buskin n aww that. Lookin back, he wiz the wan bringing hame the bread so who’s tae say. That’s whit young guys are like; they aww hink they’re the smartest cunt.
Dreadlocks says suhin but a’hm no payin attention. She rounds the left and starts on the second flight ae stairs. I kenned they’d stick me in this lift, they always dae. And it’d usually be Jenny, but of course she’s avoiding me. I look doon at the screen again. There’s a wee red button in the middle.
Ah grin and press it.
Dreams are whit makes a man, I hink. That wiz always mah hing. I wiz always the guy wae a dream. First, I thought music wiz ma hing, but it wiznae. I wiznae good enough, even if I deluded masel intae hinkin it wiz fer a long time. Then it wiz events, organizing gigs and aww that, but I could niver find the time, or I could never make the time. After that, I had a dream to open the cafe, the Wee Red Caf, jist aff Great Western Road. Wiznae much, but it wiz oors. This wiz before I even met Cerys. When I met her, the dream wiz tae huv a family.
The lift stops mid-ride and a’hm like, “Aw fuck.”
The lassie stops, midway up the stairs, and starts marching back doon. She looks ragin. It’s a poor design, really. They shouldnae let the auld yins have any control. I press the back button, the lift shudders again and starts gawn doon.
“Press the stop button,” she says through the glass, that graceful sales-tone slippin.
“I ken, I pressed it. Noo a’ve got tae start it again.”
“Naw,” I can see her rushin doon they stairs, carpeted on the top but wae a wee metal panel on the sharp corners. Bet it would hurt like a cunt skelping it doon them. She’s trying tae keep in my eye-line. “You can just stop it again,” she says.
“Is it no fer emergencies?”
“You already pressed it. That wiznae an emergency, wiz it?”
She seems distressed. A few other eye examiners come over and they all start tutting and offering advice tae each other, as I slowly descend. Seems like they’ve forgotten aboot me. “We need to explain better to the auld yins before they get on,” wan says.
“Aye, they’re no to be trusted,” another says. They all look like smarmy wee bastarts.
“Right, a’ll press the stop button then, shall I?” I call through the glass. I stomp mah palm on it and the lift stops, hovering aboot a foot aff the ground.
“Okay,” a wee man says, “now get it up, press the up button. You pressed it the last time.” He’s got a pair ae thin glasses hangin aff his nose, and black hair gelled back intae a neat quiff. The words’re coming through the glass all muted. I can see their mooths moving, behind their masks. I can see the tiredness in their eyes. Aww these middle-agers. I bet they’ve all got kids at hame. Working only tae get hame tae work some more. I bet aww they’re marriages are on the ropes. Seems like near-enough every marriage is a tight, elevating, rope these days. Too tight to gie slack, and the walls are all glass, nicely polished so you can get an idea of whit’s on the other side. No like in mah day. In my day you had whit you had, regardless of yer feelings. Maybe it’s better noo. Mare choice, or tae much choice. I eye the rows of glasses. From the schemey, £15 shelf, all the way through to the £1500 shelf. Tae much choice when yer well aff. No so much if your no.
“Pressed it,” I say.
“Aye, we ken. Noo press the up button,” Dreadlocks says.
“I pressed the up button.”
“You pressed the stop button.”
“Would you mind no shouting? a’hm doin mah best here.”
My auld da used to try tae get me into the ships, like my brether, Johnny. But it wiznae fer me. “Tae soft,” mammy called us. “Tae much of a soft layabout, playing they American songs on that geetar.” But the auld yin wiz proud when we opened the wee caf. He wiz hard tae please, but also hard tae displease. A stoic, as they say. So, when he called it “A hing ae beauty,” watching me painting the interior and hiring folks and getting it aww set up, I ken’d he wiz proud. He knew a’d have suhin tae keep me gawin once he wiz gone. I want that noo fer my kids.
We hired Cerys fer the chef, hit it aff right away. It wiz like ah hit a certain point and everything jist sortae fell intae place. Cerys wiz smart. She cared aboot hings that she didnae need to care aboot. She made sure aww the staff were happy. That wiz the hing I liked aboot her. She always made sure tae ken all aboot everyone. What they liked, what they did wae their free time, who they were as people. It made me happy tae be aboot her, so we fell intae it aww natural. Wan night we were cleaning doon after closing, and she asked me fer a pint. Of course, I did, and the rest is history. Married that next spring.
She had this fiery hair and a sharp tongue, and her lasagne wiz the best hing on the menu. Tabby looks jist like her. I mind the pair ae them: Tabby and her wee brother Frank, as wains, runnin aboot the café kitchen as Cerys wiz tryin tae get on wae the prep, and a’d be away cleaning the coffee machine and chattin shite tae folks. It wiz tiny; jist space fer two tables, a bar front, and a swingin door oot tae a wee kitchen. I painted the walls a nice white and we had aww these red tablecloths brought in, and aww these red chairs. Managed tae find a wee red coffee machine anaw. A hing ae beauty. The kids loved it. Frank wiz always the quiet one, a smart boy; an accountant now. Tabby’s still figuring hings oot. She seems tae have nae energy these days, looks like her ma, but no the same personality. She’s far mare like me in that regard. Thirty years auld and lost in the wind.
I never ken whit tae say tae her.
I pull my mask doon, wanting a breather. “Sir would you mind putting the mask back on.” A scraggly-looking blonde man in a white shirt says. He’s tucked it poorly, so it’s all billowing around his stomach like a great sail. Boy’s standin between Dreadlocks and the wan wae the quiff. They don’t care aboot me. They jist don’t wantae get sued.
“A’hm trying tae see the fuckin screen, my glasses’re all steamed tae fuck. How am I supposed tae work this hing? Can yous not jist work it?” I say. Of course, I already ken that they cannae work it, but I like tae take the piss.
“Sir, you seem to have inadvertently pressed the emergency stop. That overrides our controls.”
“Inadvertently, fuckin big words fae the glass shavers,” I say.
“Whit?” Dreadlocks says, stepping forward from her position next to the guy whose mother never taught him how tae wear a shirt properly.
I double doon, “I ken yous arnae shaving doon they lenses.”
“The boy the last time said that; fer an extra sixty pound; yous could shave doon the lenses, but there’s never gonnae be any shaving gawin on. Yous are jist pouring the glass intae a smaller mould. If anything, the thinner lenses’ll be less fuckin materials.” They don’t have a reply tae that. I doubt the floor staff put much thought into the manufacturing practices. Too busy hinking aboot their kids vomiting on each other at hame.
At this point Quiff trots off in the direction ae the manager’s office. I keep doddering aboot, squinting at the stupit my-pad until I see her coming over. Louise. I fuckin knew she’d be in. Salty Louise. The wee busker starts playing some country ditty. Louise is wearing wan ae they awful pantsuits, all navy blue, wae the shoulder pads. She’s also sportin a pair ae sharp glasses with the word, ARMANI, sketched along the legs in gold. She’s got broon hair and she holds herself with her hands on her hips like a fuckin teapot. She goes, “Peter, can you just press the up arrow for me?” she sounds like wan ae they bastarts off the sales channel on the TV. Aww cheery, but wae a wee air ae malice. Manipulative. Cold eyes borin intae you.
“Ah’v been tryin, hen. It’s no workin. Can I come doon?”
Louise sighs and then barks at the onlookers to get back tae work. They shuffle off but don’t quite move fully away. They wantae tae see how this is gonnae pan oot. It’s funny how hings never pan oot the way you expect them tae, but when you get tae the end ae it, and look back, you see that it wiz always inevitable. The endin ae hings never comes fae naewhere. There’s always some hint, like in the way a person speaks, or the way they hold themselves, tellin you who they’re gonnae turn oot tae be long before they dae it though their actions. It’s like wae glaciers. It’s like The Wee Red Caf.
“The feckin McDonalds of opticians,” I mutter.
“Whit wiz that?”
Mah son, wee Frank, wiz always a bit different fae me. I s’pose that’s life, eh? The next generation always strains their necks tae be different fae the last. Even Glesga doesnae feel as rough as it did once. Aww these vegetarians and aww that. Aww the dreadlocks, the good intentions, the nice folk. It’s hard no tae catch a smile aff most cunts you pass on the streets. A’hm happy aboot it. Even the polis arnae really arseholes anymare. Tabby’s a vegetarian, or a veganterian, rather. I thought Cerys wiz gonnae have a fit when she telt us, wan Christmas as we were prepping the meal. I didn’t gie a toss, always kenned alottae folks like that so it wiznae anything new tae me. Cerys didnae really understond it, but she came roond eventually. I bet Dreadlocks here’s a vegantarian anaw. Doesnae make me like her any mare. “Load ae pish,” a’h say.
“Excuse me?” Louise goes. My auld dad used to come at me lit that, with that smarmy, ‘I ken better than you,’ way ae talkin. I wonder if Frankie feels like I talked tae him lit that.
“He’s like Insulate Britain,” Dreadlocks says.
“Fuck off,” I say.
“Peter,” Louise goes. “C’mon now.”
“A’hm trying mah best here.” The lift is still hovering aboot a foot aff the ground. I pull doon mah mask and go, “Why don’t you get in and show me?”
“The lift is only fer wan person.”
“Well am an auld man, yer a wee woman. It’ll be fine.”
Every time she says mah name I want tae spit. Splat some black, tobacco spit across the glass, so it drips doon and rolls intae that nice blue carpeting. “I’ll bring it doon, and you can help us.” I press the down arrow and the lift moves. One, two, three clicks and it hits the ground. The wee door slides open, and a ramp extends. “C’mon then. A’hm in a bittae a rush. Bingo’s on later.”
“Fine,” Louise goes, and she gets in. She’s reekin ae fruity perfume and her face is caked in bronze powder. Her broon hair’s straightened, hanging limply around that face, that curled lip. She taps the close door button deftly and then starts us on the upward climb. Dreadlocks follows up the stairs. The wee group of onlookers on the ground floor onlook. Ah’m gonnae want an audience fer this, but first I need a distraction.
“Ho, whit’s that wee bam daein?” I say, tappin on the glass.
“Whit?” Louise goes, following my point, and quick as a flash I bang mah hand doon on the emergency stop. The lift halts suddenly, and we fall intae each other.
“Get aff me,” I say, pushin her away. I then reach doon and get a finger roond the mains power connection on the controls. I pull hard and the wee screen goes black. The folk below us look up. The wee busker keeps hammering away.
“Why’d you do that fer?” Louise says.
“Ken whit, Louise?” I say, standing up straight. “Ah’v been wanting tae get you somewhere fer a wee chat fer a while noo.” I take my other haund aff the meal railing and square mah shoulders. Cerys wouldae had a private phone call, or wouldae gone roond Louise’s new place, but Cerys isnae here anymare. A’hm daein this mah way. “Louise, you walked oota that hoose wae that car that you and Tabby paid fer the gether. You’ve left her wae the mortgage since yer credit wiz so shite you couldnae put yer name up fer it anaw. You’re a user and a thief. I could tell it from the first moment I laid eyes on ye. You abuse the people who love you, tellin them they’re no good enough, wearing them doon, making her feel bad. You made mah Tabby feel shite fer loving the hings she loves. Manipulating her, letting her hink she’s gawin mad. Making her sell aww her guitars so you could get a new kitchen put intae that hoose, that you’ve now fucked off outtae, stickin her wae the bills.”
Louise’s mooth is hanging, “This has nothing tae nae wae you,” she says. “You never understood.”
Tabby and Louise met at university, and they stayed together fer years. Each year we saw less of Tabby, and when we did see her, it always seemed like a little piece of her had been stripped away. I mind as a teenager, a’d try tae embarrass her by holding her haund, and I could feel the callouses on the tips ae her fingers fae playing so much music, but last Christmas they came roond and I went tae hold her haund at the dinner table, and she went tae pull away, “Can an auld man no hold his wee girl’s haund anymare?”
“Ah’m thirty, dad.”
But ah jist grinned and gave it a squeeze. I could feel the tips ae her fingers were smooth. She seemed so tired, and every time opened her mooth, she had tae first look over tae Louise, across the table, tae see if it wiz okay. Half the time it wiznae. Wan sharp look wiz all it took, and my wee girl would shut her mooth and sit in stony silence. It wiz like a dog being telt aff, cowerin away fae a belt in the corner.
“I don’t gie a fuck aboot that, hen,” I say. “This is you finally being telt what you are.” A’hm punctuating my words with a fat finger, “A piece of human shite, shit aff my shoe.” I turn to the substantial crowd below. “Don’t ken how yous can stand the sight of her.”
Of course, the cafe didn’t last. Fuck did I ken aboot runnin cafes? Johnny got us this maintenance joab fer the hotels, keeping the lifts gawn. It wiz piss easy once I got the hang ae it. Lifts and elevators are straightforward pieces of machinery, really.
“You cannae gie her back any of the time you stole, but you can at least pay her fer the car, and fer the hoose.” I say, “You can dae suhin.”
Louise is jist standin there, exposed. She kens a’m tellin the truth; it’s written all over her face. I mind my faether takin me on his knee, as a child. I wiz cryin aboot suhin or other. “Look son, you can live life wan ae two ways. You’re gonnae fail in life, you’re gonnae lose hings. You can spend yer time hinkin aboot the hings that you don’t have, or you can spend your time thinking aboot the things you do have. If you lose suhin, it’s okay to mourn it, but don’t forget what you’ve no lost. Don’t use pain tae elevate yerself. Elevate others and then maybe you’ll elevate yerself.”
“Louise,” I say, “cut the fucking crap. Pay her back, let it end, or a’hm gonnae keep coming back here and a’hm gonnae keep hassling you in front of aww yer fuckin colleagues.”
“This is futile.”
“Don’t use pain tae elevate yerself,” I say and I turn back tae the controls. “Right then, a’v said mah piece.” I reset the feckin hing, easy as pie, and get aff. “Dae the right hing, pay whit you owe. At least she can get the money. The time and sanity she may never get back.”
I exit the lift, take mah cane aff Dreadlocks and sidle oot the sliding doors. Might stop by that Guitar-Guitar on mah way hame.
Might get a wee Taylor fer Tabby.
(A version of this story also appeared in Makarelle: Love is Love, 2022.)