Wringing my hands.
Ringing? Wringing out. Mary always says I’ve got sweet hands, delicate petals. The woman in me finds that both insulting and flattering. The dainty hands of a poet, which tracks. “Look under the couch,” Mary says from the hallway. She’s painting that wall, from wall to corner to wall to ceiling. I’ve been helping, somewhat, mostly moral support, but that’s because I’m meeting Allison today. Aunty Allison. The one who gave me the watch. As if I need watched. A flash; eyes above the cot. I step into the kitchen, the woolly tip of my sock dangling as I go – and I feel it. Wet, damp, the exclusion of dryness making a sponge of the soft material of my woolen sock. I stand morose, staring south. It’s that puddle again.
“There’s piss coming out of the fridge, Mary!” I say.
“I wish you wouldn’t say that.” She always says that she loves the way that I say things, but she doesn’t always love the things that I say. I wonder if this is a problem that other poets have.
“It’s pissing. I’m being serious, this is fridge piss.”
“It’s defrosting. The temperature needs adjusted,” she’s got an English accent. She turns back to the wall and grumbles something about summer being over. Summer of our youth.
But I want her attention, “I’ve stood in the piss,” I say.
“Patricia,” she doesn’t turn.
“I’ve got piss all over my socks.”
Still no response, so quick as a flash I whip the sock off, flinging it at her. Mary ducks and the pissy-sock splatters against the wall. I wonder if there’s a poem in there somewhere: Quick as a flash, a black mustache. The sock fell to the floor.
“What the hell, Pat?” she calls me Pat when she’s pissed, like a cowpat. She’s got a straight face, long brown hair, tied up all messy. She’s always straight-faced, even when I ken she’s laughing. Straight-scowling over one shoulder, gripping that roller against the wall. She wants it done by Christmas.
“Sorry, I was going for your head,” I say.
“I hate you.”
“I love you,” sweet-smiling. I sweet-smile.
She looks up at the splattered wall, and then at the sock, fallen limply behind her. “I suppose I love you too, don’t I?”
Quick as a flash. The pace of disgrace. I turn back into the kitchen, toeing around the puddle. I don’t look, but Mary likely rolls her eyes and returns to painting. I took that watch off to do the dishes, and then never put it back on. Why can I never find anything? It’s a nice kitchen, piss aside. Eggshell blue on the walls, ceramic tiling around the worksurfaces and the cooker. Work in progress. The drawers always close slowly, no matter how hard you slam them. I look at the clock on the wall above the door, which says half-past eleven. I need to be quick. It’s not even about the words. It’s about the phrase. Who said quick as a flash first? Was it lightning? Was it a spark off a blade? Did they know how many times their simile would be regurgitated.
Mary’s parents are straight-laced, but they’re used to us by now. My own parents are out of the picture so it’s usually her ma and da’s we’re at for Christmas. They live on the outskirts of London, Chelsea fans, quite well to do. They speak in these posh, Essex-ish accents, “Awwite Patwisha, stiww a vegitawian ahh you?”
“Am indeed, Cheryl. Have been fer yonks,” regurgitate your flash, or my flash?
“Even fow chicken?”
“Yes, even fer chicken.”
“Even few a cow?” the wee snot-nosed nephew’d say, jumping in on the horrendous patter. “Wot if you weh stuck on a deseht island wiv nuffing but a bucket of KayFC?”
They’re all gingers, aside fae Mary. Flashing. Lashings. Lashed as a punishment, lashed as a means to stay on a ship whilst sirens sing. Lash me to the mainsail. Eyelashes. I sometimes joke that Mary was adopted and she’s all, “I fuckin wish mate.”
The first couple of hours are always a test of endurance, while they get our lifestyle choices out of their systems. They have a way of looking at us. A way that fits into their worldview. I’m treated as the man, sent to the drawing-room to have sips of brandy with the husbands, whilst dear Mary is pipped through to the kitchen to spend the middle-afternoon slaving over one of those old-timey Aga-thingmies that all of these posh folks seem to have. In the drawing-room, the men quiz me on politics, or oftentimes on my preference in women, which is oftentimes a bit of a laugh. Flash of commonality. Colour?
“What time are you meeting her again?” Mary says. She’s still got that paint roller in her hand. I nearly can feel the way the paint sticks between it and the wall. A syrupy, sticky feeling in the palm of her hand.
“One o’clock,” I say.
“And you’re wearing that?”
I look down. I’m in a woollen jumper, ripped jeans. “Aye? What’s wrang wi this?”
“Well…” she has a little bit of paint on her wrist, dripping down her forearm, not like a flash. Is a day a flash to a tree? No, that’s crap.
“I like this jumper,” I say, “hides all the unsightly parts.”
“Unsightly,” she laughs. “Alison’ll be expecting you to make an effort,” as if social pressure from my aunt in relation to something as classist as the very concept of fashion is something that is morally permissible. Trash.
That accent of Mary’s is so nice, though. So proper, so pretty. Rose-tinted earmuffs? “Well, that’s why I need the feckin watch,” I say. “Cannae be worrying about clothes until I’ve found that. Who gifts somebody a fuckin antique watch, anyways? Who even uses watches?”
“Did you look by the sink?”
“Of course I looked by the sink; that’s where I always put it.” Thinks I was born yesterday. Flash in the pan.
That Daniel’s the worst of them all. Eldest brother. A sycamore sapling, dripping from above. He’s smart, in both mind and attire. He works as a journalist for some magazine, Daily Walloper or suhin. Big tall boy, with the darkest of all the actual ginger hair. It’s almost like a colour palate with them all. The youngest has the gingeriest hair, and it gets darker and darker till we get to Mary. Daniel’s got it almost brown, but it goes red in the light. He’s smarmy. When I’m down there I attempt to suppress the Scottishness in me. I mean, my parents are English and my auntie’s English, but I was raised in Glasgow, so I don’t really ken where I’d put myself if I were to make a nationalist argument.
“Are you English, or are you Scottish?” Daniel says.
“Did you vote for independence?” A flash of sound. A pop.
“Didn’t vote at all,” I look him up and down, in his little Christmas jumper cupping his little glass of brandy in his little soft hands. I look down at my own brandy; it’s almost gone. “But you can damn sure I’ll dae it this time!” Sometimes it’s a laugh to whack a wasps nest with a big stick.
“Oh, yes? And what will you vote for?”
“Well, it doesnae take a political mastermind tae see that Scottish politics is superior to English politics. I obviously love English people, and I think there’s a lot of good people down here, but the majority, at least the majority of voters are clearly… amoral bastards, aren’t they?” The room takes a hush when I drop the word bastard. They’re not used to the swearing, but I continue, “I mean, the Tories voted just last year, that animals are incapable of feeling pain, and this year they voted to remove the right to protest if it is deemed ‘an annoyance.’ Don’t you think that’s fuckin mental? That is a basic human right, and pain is a basic fact of nature, not to mention Brexit, and the truckers, the gas shortages, the NHS staffing crisis, the environmental concerns around all that river dumping that’s now no longer regulated by the EU, all the tax dodging, the cost of living crisis, the Bahama havens, and at the heed of it all you’ve got that blond, flappy-haired cunt whose tried to have journalists beaten up. The Scottish issue is that we don’t want tae be led by the likes of that smarmy cunt. We don’t want nuclear weapons next to our largest population. We don’t want tae eat from this mountain of shite.” I’m mixing up the memory with things I’d like to say to him now. I tend to do that. We weren’t round theirs’s last Christmas, lockdown, and all that. This was the one before: 2019.
“Who are you talking about?”
“The prime fuckin minister, that’s who. Have yous no seen the YouTube video?” I whip out my phone. Yous steered the conversation this way, buckle up buckaroos. “Look at this,” I load up the video of Boorish Johnston talking about hiring that cunt to beat that other cunt up, “Not to mention when he said that we could take an international pandemic ‘on the chin,’ when hundreds of thousands were dying, or when he said black folk have watermelon smiles, or when he said that Muslim women in hijabs look like letterboxes,” the video starts playing and that’s when all the women of the household appear, half of them wearing aprons. Visiting those cunts is like visiting one of those living-history museums. I mean no judgement, but if I ever have such a full house with all my grandchildren there’ll be no gender-based separation of tasks, that’s for sure. God, what’s it gonna be like this time with her parents up here? Maybe their visit explains Mary’s current feverish obsession with interior decoration.
In the London townhouse Mary sees what’s going on, and steps over, puts a hand over my phone. We’re still in the drawing-room and I’ve got another glass of brandy that I took off the table. It must belong to one of the doddery uncles, but who cares. Daniel’s about to come out with something about Nicola Sturgeon, “Yes, well Sturgeon did not disclose some information to the committee about…”
“Aye, nae politician is exactly the epitome of morality, but big Nicky’s leagues ahead of any fuckin tory, I’ll tell you that. Bojo may as well be laddie fucking McBeth.”
Aside fae Christmas, we never visit, and they never come tae Scotland. I suppose this Christmas is the exception. We never should’ve got that mortgage. Soon as you’ve got a mortgage everycunt wants to visit. They feel the need to inspect your investment, both empirical and spiritual. Flash the cash. Usually, the only family member who comes up here is my Aunty Allison, and that’s only when the book tours take her this way. I always dread it, but it’s always fine. I would have invited Mary along too, but she seems dead set on this wall.
“Well, get dressed then?” Mary calls through. She knows I’m staring at myself in the mirror, pullin faces.
“Not without the bloody watch,” I call back.
“I’d get dressed up.”
“Well, you’re no coming, are you?”
“I could…” she starts, but I’m firing through to the next room. I hear the roller resume on the wall. I could what? ‘I could help you find the watch,’ that’d be nice, but she’s always dead-focused on her tasks. She’s like that. I admire it as much as I find it irritating. When Mary puts her mind to something it simply happens. She says it, imagines it, and then makes it real. It’s a talent. A flash that goes on and on. Burning hot fuel at the centre of a ring of planets.
“What time is it now?” I call through. She’s got a chip on her shoulder this morning. Normally she’d be right up, helping me get ready, helping me find stuff, choosing the best shade of lip-shite fer me, but today she’s stuck to that wall.
“It’s almost twelve,” she calls back, “You’d better hurry up. Takes half an hour to walk to Froggies.”
Frederic’s Café has a wee picture of a frog on one wall, so Mary calls it Froggies. We go there all the time. Mary loves it. She likes the way the staff fuss over us. It’s owned by this old couple: Mildred, and Lin, both in their sixties, who love the pair ae us tae bits. Probably see their younger selves in us. Always giving Mary an extra slice of toast or a free refill on the coffee. It’s dead cute, they’re dead cute. A flash of age. I’d have thought Mary would’ve asked tae come. I wouldn’t mind the support, but she’s been goin at that wall all day with a vengeance. Maybe I should invite her? Nahh, don’t want to distract her. She hates to be distracted when she’s given herself a task. It’ll look sharp when it’s done.
“So, you’ve no seen it at all?” I say.
“Nope,” Mary says, curtly. There’s something in her voice, I dunno what it is.
“Sure? I’m leaving in five minutes.”
“If you’re not going to help me, I’m not going to help you.” She picks up a brush and puts it to an edged part, neatly cornered with masking tape.
“So, you do know?” I grin.
“No, I bloody well don’t. You might as well just go; you’ve only got twenty minutes.”
I grab my coat and my bag. Mary tells me not to worry, and that Allison won’t even notice, to which I reply that Allison notices everything. Mary’s on her knees next to the wall, wearing dungarees. They’re lovely, those dungarees. I wish she wouldn’t paint in them. I tell her I love her and scoot out the door. She tells me the same.
Quick hike down Duke Street and then to Candleriggs. I whip out my phone and text Allison to tell her I’m enroute. She returns with a thumb. I think older folks don’t realise how rude those thumbs are. Maybe I’ll try to explain it to her when we meet. I pull out a packet of smokes and spark one, pushing the lucky one to the side. Mary always does my lucky smoke. It’s nice carrying a wee reminder of her around in my pocket.
I’m worried I embarrass her. I always cause a scene with her family, and I also embarrassed her at her last work do. I told everyone this story about a fridge full of horse semen. I mean, I thought it was funny. I think everything’s funny when I’ve had a drink. “I had this pal, Chris in high school,” I began, “whose parents had a wee horse farm just outside Crieff. So, Chris had a party, and all our pals went up. They had this big old farmhouse and we got good and pished, smoked some buckets, played some PlayStation, right?”
“Right,” went some rando from Mary’s party. There was a group of folk, all lingering by the kitchen table, which was covered in a mishmash of different bottles.
“Aye, and it was a rare night, but little did we know, the fucking parents would come in at the crack of bloody dawn to get us all up working on the farm.” The parents were Swiss, immigrated about five years prior. I then proceeded to do an incredibly insensitive impersonation of a Swiss-French-German, hybrid accent, “evry van mast verk on ze varm ven you shtay ze nicht,” which was met with some mild giggling, but the kind of awkward giggling you don’t really want, but I kept going anyways. “So, we were all hungover as fuck the next morning, and we got to bailing hay and mucking out the stables, going at it wie rakes and forks, and I got sent back to make teas fer everyone, right?”
“I went into the kitchen and there were these two massive fridges right next to each other, and I opened the wrong one.”
“Aw naw,” went some other guy.
“Aye, and so I was confronted with rows and rows of vials of what could only have been horse seamen. Gallons of the stuff. It was thick and white and slightly yellow. Now apparently, it’s very expensive. I was shocked. Put me right off trying to find the milk. I brought everycunt milk-less tea, wi nae sugar, just pure imagining Chris’s big Swiss maw holding one of they, leather, horse vaginas as a big stallion mounted a big fuckin fake wooden horse. Gads. They had to be pumping it at least once a day fer that kinda load. It was mental.” I was lost in the story, and when I turned back to the room, and my poor wife, they were all standing there round the table, lips curled in disgust.
We’ve not been invited to a dinner party since.
I reach the end of Duke Street and cross onto that wee bit before Strathclyde Uni and continue until I hit George Square. I hang a left and then I’m greeted with the sound before I see the mass. Hordes of people, all holding signs. PLANETARY ANNIHILATION. WE’RE ALL GONNAE DIE. DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING. I forgot Cop26 was on. Man, I would’ve liked to have come down for it, Mary would’ve too. We’re both quite well-read. We’re into politics and positive social change. Hopefully, this mass of beanie-hat wearers achieves something. I nose my way through the throngs of people and the polis until I get to the far end. I circle a big horse with a bobby on top, giving them a wide birth, and then I cross into the merchant city.
It’s a quaint cafe. Pleasant yellow. Running down my arm. Pleasant, handmade wooden furniture and pleasant, jazzy music in the background. Lin seems not to be around, but Mildred greets me with a big smile and a hug. It’s a powerful name, Mildred. She could be the leader of a coven. Drenched head to toe in goat’s blood.
I’m led to a seat and given a wee lotus biscuit. It’s rare enough that my aunt’ll come up for a visit. She’s my godmother too, so she’s someone whose always shown a keen interest in me as a person, and not even necessarily in a religious way. She sends me texts almost by the week, ever since I left for university. I think she worries about me now that mum and dad are away. They’ve been travelling for almost five years now. It was as soon as Jenny went off to uni, they were like, “Right, time to blow the savings.” They both quit their jobs, dad as a foreman at some circuit board factory and ma as a physiotherapist. They put their notice in and booked the first flight to Peru. Jet set. Not looked back since. Good on them, I say, though I do miss them. Maybe I could fly out and meet them somewhere, save up a bit of scratch. I dunno. Maybe I should invite Jenny to Christmas at ours. She might pad the room out a bit, give the wild dogs an unobtrusive straight person to harang.
Speech turned sour in fresh ears off the press. I think that’s partly why Allison tries to keep tabs on me. I’m not even sure if aunts are supposed to be godmothers, but she’s always been very devout, bordering on nun-like. I remember saying, when we were at the fancy meal after our first holy communion, me and Jen both were all, “Thank god it’s over. Can we stop going to fuckin church now?” which was naturally met with scowls across the table from all the extended family. Dad laughed his ass off, but Aunty Allison just went, “The food is turning to ashes in my mouth.”To which everyone laughed, but I never forgot those words. I knew she meant them. Ashes in the mouth, like we’d dragged her delicate palate to the seventh circle of hell, the circle of traitors. Though, I’m pretty sure Dante had that one full of ice, so I don’t think ashes would be applicable.
A wee bell on the door to Froggie’s Café rings and I look up to see Allison striding in, head to toe in designer shit-gear. Smart-casual. She wouldn’t look out of place at a gala or a poolroom. She waves a leather glove at me, vegan-leather most likely. She’s in a thick red trench coat and she’s got her hair back in a neat bun. She looks stunning, especially for someone in their mid-fifties. Glamorous, mysterious. A wide smile on her face.
“Hellow pet!” she says. I stand up. We share a French greeting and sit.
Allison peels her gloves off and places them on the right-hand side of the table. Then she says, “Did you bring that watch?”
Literally, the first words to leave her mouth are about that bloody watch. The beautiful little antique, solid gold, lattice worked, Art Nouveau wristwatch. A wonderful and majestic gift, but who the fuck wears a watch? Flashes of watches, sold on street corners by men in trench coats, taken from the wrists of arms hanging out of rubble.
I don’t want to insult her, so I say, “Oh it’s at home. I didn’t want to risk taking it out.”
“It is somewhere safe, though?” Allison suddenly seems serious. The room grows cold. I can see my breath. In the background Mildred, holding a tray, shivers. Clinking of crockery.
“Yes of course. It’s on my chest of drawers,” I say.
“Well,” she grabs the gloves, “Let’s go get it immediately.”
“We need it right away. Why do you think I told you to bring it?”
“What? Why do you need it?”
“There’s no time to explain. This is of the utmost urgency; human life may very well depend upon it.”
“Quickly,” she stands up, “Do you have a car?”
“Why didn’t you just come to my house in the first place?” I also stand up.
Allison leans in. I can smell her Coco Chanel. “I had to ensure your safety in a public space.”
“What? Oh my god. Look, I couldn’t find it. I’m sure it’s in the house somewhere, but I couldn’t find it this morning. What is it? Oh my god, Mary’s there, Allison. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Quickly now, follow me,” Allison grabs me by the wrist. We head for the door. “It is a key to something very valuable and extraordinarily dangerous. Something that could shake our society to its very core.” Her face goes very dark indeed, “Are your doors locked?”
Allison was always quite mysterious. She’s written books, academic texts. She’s high up at London University. She never seems to have a partner. She lives alone, has no pets, just rows of books, a flat table looking out of a window on the Southwark skyline. Though, she rarely spends time there. She has stony eyes and a commanding presence. She’s respected and feared by almost every family member, the only exception being my father, her brother. He pokes fun at her, hinting at embarrassing histories over the dinner table that no one can ever get out of them. Something like, “Do remember that stolen beachball?” And she’d go a bright shade of crimson, and erupt into laughter, flinging something at him: a fork, or a bread roll. We’d all ask him what it was about, but he would always say he was sworn to secrecy.
“Pardon?” I say.
Her face cracks and then she falls backwards, cackling. “I knew you’d lose it.”
“I was only joking. I knew you would have lost it so I thought I may play a little joke at your expense.”
Mildred, with her little grey bob, calls over, “Are you ladies leaving already?”
Allison pulls out a silver cigarette case and passes me a Marlborough. “No dear, just having a smoke.”
I exhale heavily, bloody hell. I take the smoke. “Why are you in town then?”
“Oh, I have a book signing in Edinburgh. I thought I may take the time to see my favourite nieces. How’s Jen? How’s Mary?” We step just to the left of the front door.
“Jen couldn’t come. She says she’s sick, but I think she’s been on the drink. Mary’s fine. She’s painting the house today.”
We have an amicable chat, a cup of coffee, and Mildred gives us a scone each, gratis. The pedestrians outside blend into the cars and the city noise. I kiss Allison goodbye on the cheek, wishing her luck with the book signing, and I promise to send her a poem.
When I get back, Mary’s by the door holding the watch. Flash in the eyes, darts as they’re thrown. “You found it?” I say, grinning. Shivering a little in the doorway.
“It was in my pocket all along.” She looks at her feet, “I was annoyed you never invited me.”
“Oh no. I’d have loved to have you there. You just seemed busy.”
“Yeah, I realised that you probably thought that I seemed busy, so I rolled you a joint to apologise. She hands me the watch, and then hands me a joint, flashes a lighter.
Flashes are lighter.