Give me a clue                                                        

It’s good to see grandad up and about again, sitting in the sun by the window in his scarlet waiscoat with the tartan rug over his knees. He is staring down at the quickie crossword on the back page of The Herald.

Give me a clue then Pops, I ask.

He used to rattle through crosswords, any crossword, in no more than the time it took him to have breakfast, the paper propped against the marmalade jar, the radio in the corner behind him giving out the day’s news and weather/traffic reports. He used to give me a clue,  just to make me feel included, and then help me to arrive at the answer,  just to make me feel pleased with myself.

Come on,  Pops. Give me a clue.

He taps the pen between his teeth, frowning.

P something  Z  something something something  something  something something  S,  he says. Nine letters.  Someone’s  illness.

I count out the letters on my fingers. Parkinson’s, I tell him. Parkinson’s disease.

He looks out of the window. Next-door’s cat is stalking something along the garden wall between the wheelbarrow and the garden shed.

Gran comes in and puts his tray on the table beside him. Don’t let it get cold now, she says.

I won’t, he says and leans forward over the tray then looks up and smiles. Mmmmm, he says.  Smells good, looks good and it’s going to taste good. Thanks Dot.

When Gran has gone, he looks at me and the smile goes. Zed,  he says.  P something Zed. Not P something R.  And nine letters,  not  ten.

I lean over his shoulder and together we stare at the half-filled- in grid and then at the unsolved clues.

‘Pleased’  is wrong, I finally tell him and point at his answer for 6 across. ‘Pleased’ is wrong, Pops.  It should be ‘amiable’. So it’s  A something  Z,  not P.

What’s with all this Pops malarky? he asks,  making no movement to correct his error, not even looking up at me. You’ve  been watching  too many American cartoons.

I’ve always called him ‘Pops’.

‘ Pa   za   lo   va’s ‘,   he says with an air of finality,  filling  in the answer,  drawing out each syllable to match the slowness of his writing.  Yes,  Pazalova’s  Disease,  he says and with a flourish puts the pen away in his breast pocket . That’s it. Finished.

The cat pounces but on what we can’t see because it’s behind the wheelbarrow.


‘Two Cats and a Waitress’  is the title of a short short story about two cats and a waitress. It is a short short story because I am coming round to the belief that nowadays we work so hard at reducing our daily workload (escalators, for example  – we don’t climb stairs any more; the stairs do our climbing for us… or lifts,  remote controls, teabags etc., etc.),  that the 400 page novel is already a thing of the past; and the short story will soon be replaced by the instant short story (which will soon be replaced by the two-liner and so on).

Would you like to read my two-liner? It can be read in a couple of  seconds and relies on the reader to flesh it out. Very post post-modern:


A waitress had two cats. One of them got pregnant, one  disappeared and one kept the neighbourhood awake at night with her continual screeching and yowling.

                                                                        * * * * *

That’s it. The end (as far as the writer is concerned). But just the beginning for the reader: –
Which of the three got pregnant? Could it have been the waitress who kept the neighbourhood awake at nights? Or was she the one who mysteriously disappeared?


When my girlfriend becomes aroused, she insists that we go outside and find somewhere very public and very dangerous to act out her impulses.  She especially enjoys  kissing and entwining her supple self round me in the main street with all the cars whizzing past, honking their horns,  flashing their lights. Most of all she is stimulated by the lewd remarks shouted at us by shaven-headed thugs leaning from the windows of their flashy cars  with CD players turned up full volume and making obscene gestures with their fingers and forearms as they pass.

When we get back home, fired up after one of these outings, she likes nothing better than kicking off her shoes and lying on the sofa with a giant tub of popcorn on her chest, watching old Humphrey Bogart movies, flicking popcorn into her open mouth and shouting things like, Get ’em off, baby! and Just do it for Crissake!

The African Queen is our favourite.



This morning at 3am I woke up out of a troubled dream, started worrying about the exam, couldn’t get back to sleep again, switched on the radio. BBC 5 Live. A phone-in programme. Nicky Somebody from Osmotherley  told this extremely funny, extremely witty  joke, and I laughed out loud and thought that was the funniest thing I’ve heard for ages, I must remember to tell it to everyone tomorrow and still smiling, the exam forgotten, I dropped off into a seamless, dreamless sleep.
Then this morning, at 10.30 am as I was filing  into the examination room I suddenly remembered that I had heard this extremely funny, extremely witty joke which would make everyone laugh….

but what was the joke again?
I sat down in my allocated seat [206] and when the invigilator told us to begin, opened the question paper and quickly glanced through it. So many questions!
Question 6 looked like the one I had prepared for. Yes, question 6 then 4…or possibly question 3…..or 9? Yes,question 6 then question 9..
The invigilator was walking slowly up and down the aisles. He had a club foot. His club foot made a different sound from his other foot. And the rhythm was sort of irregular:  Boom….. di..Boom ……. di.. Boom….. di..Boom. Getting louder, getting closer.
Right, question 6…..
That funny, witty joke, what was it?
Where was it?
Dissipated. Deleted. I looked  round. Everyone bowed over, writing
away like mad.
Boom…..di..Boom. No, wait…something to do with a railway carriage….. a woman in a railway carriage ……….and …..and
No. Discarded. Gone forever.
Right. Question 6.  ” Truth or illusion: Is this what ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’  is about? ”
 ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was a play I had seen/read so often I felt I knew it by heart but truth or illusion? Truth or illusion…
What exactly did that mean?
I started to write anyway,  got halfway through my opening sentence –  ” Martha’s truth is very different from George’s version of reality in that….” –  when I remembered it had something to do with peeling an orange…a  man in a railway carriage is peeling an orange and the woman sitting next to him says……says what? No, he turns to the woman sitting next to him and says……
(Why is it that when you dream a particularly vivid dream or hear an outstandingly funny joke, unless you write it down it disappears like morning mist? What specific part of the brain’s memory system deals with jokes and dreams? And why does it send them straight to the recycle bin after use? What use? How can they be retrieved? And what is the link between jokes and dreams?)
That was it….he turns to the woman and says, I hope you don’t suffer from a citrus allergy and she says……and she says…

I listened to the irregular footsteps of the approaching invigilator and stared at the exam paper then he was bending over me and quietly asking, “Anything the matter?”
I shook my head.
So many questions, so many unanswered questions.



Naebdy hitches thae days. When I wir  a lad (that’s me ower der) I hitched a ower – Europe, America – an I met hunners o interestin fowk in the  process.

Later on, when I wiz in Africa, I met an American quine wha hid been drivin her VW caravanettee wi a freen fae Nairobi doon tae Cape Town an the van hid broken doon in the Congo so whit did she an her freen dae? They hitchhiked. In Africa. In the Congo. A the wye back tae Nairobi. Wi niver a bit o trouble.  Well no exactly – ther wis an encounter wi a rhinoceros an the freen got tick fever but apart fae that they hid the time o ther lives. Hoo’s that fir smeddum  (or recklessness)? Or jist bein young?

Nae doot some fowk saw it as a wye o life – get sumbdy else ti dae a the work an   pay a the siller and gie you a piggieback intae the bargin.

But na, it wisnae. It wiz a wye  o seein the world an the fowk in it that otherwise ye widnae hae hid access tae. Yid get a lift tae Terranova an on the wye yid tell the driver yir life story an he/she wid tell ye his/hers syne he/she wid drap ye aff an yid niver see yin anither  again.

Nooadays der’s sae much cheap travel fir young fowk that it’s daft or mean tae hitchhike. An if ye did,  ye wid run the risk o bein mugged, murdered or worse.

A different world nooadays. A different world.

Na it isnae!




Words have sounds and rhythms which reinforce their meaning: ‘flip-flop’ echoes the sound and rhythm made by that particular type of footwear….and ‘thud’, ‘bang’, ‘crash’  etc. are obviously words that echo the sound they represent; words like ‘shuffle’, ‘flutter’ imitate movement as well as sound…..
‘Ping-pong’ sounds even better the other way round      –     gnip-gnop gnip gnop  gni….oops…pick it off the floor…there it is…there, under the chair…
Likewise  the word – SPLASH – is an  ideogram of the event it signifies:
1) The  initial  sibilant  –  S – replicates the hiss of the stone cutting through the air (SSS);
2) then  comes the plosive – P –  as the stone breaks  the surface of the water (SSS – P);
3) the labial –  L –  pictures  the stone gliding under the sutface  (SSS-P-LLL);
4) The concluding – ASH – is the plume of spray sent up by the stone as it disappears into the water (SSS – P – LLL- AAASHSHSH).

‘glides’   has the sounds to suggest after an initial thrust, effortless motion in/on/through water  –     G….. LLL….IDE….SSSSS

and it sounds even better in French:

Le cygne chasse l’onde avec ses larges palmes
et glisse………………

And  finally I remember from my schooldays when we had to learn poetry by heart, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s

” the moan of doves in immemorial elms,
   and murmuring of innumerable bees. “


On my way up to Easter Aquorthies  I tried to spot the  skylarks  singing high overhead but they were either too high or too small.
Far below I could see field after green field all the way down to the conic hill of  Dunideer where the sheep that  graze there acquire golden teeth – a  chemical in the soil, some say, that affects the sheep’s saliva;  a fairy place, others tell you, and can sing you ballads to prove it.
And not too far away is the 40ft. column that marks the battle of Harlaw. Red Harlaw where 10,000 Highlanders died:

 As I cam in by Dunideer
 and doon by Netherha’,
 there were fifty thoosand Hieland men
 cam mairchin’ tae Harlaw “

Only 40,000 at the end of the day however….an they werenae mairchin…..
But all that was a long long time ago. 1411.

Anyway today….big blue sky; fluffy summer clouds; a day that made you feel like whistling. Or hanging out the washing. Or going for a hike up a hill  to a place like this that had something about it that brought a smile to your lips and a spring to your step. Air that had that fresh, clear like quality that comes after rain and I was going to the sacred place, the Recumbent Stone Circle that marked the centre of all the strange and wonderful things that had happened here…here where the sacred Gadie runs clear and fast at the back o the blue hills o Bennachie.

Then I  heard  voices.
French schoolchildren had been organised by their teacher to play a sort of basketball game in the stone circle.  They were clearly and loudly enjoying themselves immensely.
” Excuse me,” I called out to their teacher.  ” Ex Cuse Me!”    She blew her whistle and they stopped playing. ”  Excuse me, ” I said again, lowering my voice and sweeping my arm to take in the ring of stones. ” Do you think these stones were placed here to mark out a games pitch for visiting tourists? Are you not here to learn something of our culture and history? Are you aware that this is a sacred place, a warriors  burial ground,  not a schoolchildren’s playground? I don’t expect your kids to know any better, they’re just kids after all,  but you! Their teacher! I expect you to know better!  “

(No, I didn’t. But I wish I had. Instead I turned on my heel and walked slowly back to my car.
The skylarks had gone.  

I drove down  to the main road back to Aberdeen, curiously defeated, the brightness gone from the day.)

Crows and Doves

Once upon a long time ago, I was wandering through Ireland and I came to the monastery Joyce wrote about in “The Dead” …..Mont-somethingorother. It’ll come back to me.* Anyhow I stayed there over a weekend – a spartan room, very simple meals, no-one to talk to except the priest/monk who had the dispensation to talk. My fellow lodgers were, for Ireland, unusually untalkative. However it was a very peaceful sojourn and did my soul and heart no harm at all.
* [
Mount Melleray Abbey is  a community of  Cistercian (Trappist) monks.  The monastery is situated on the slopes of the Knockmealdown mountains in County Waterford, Ireland.]
The outstanding memory I have of Mount Melleray is of sitting on my bed looking out of the window across the sunlit garden at the very ornate wooden dovecot in the centre of the lawn – a single pole supporting a circular platform in the middle of which was a large ‘house’ with two arched doorways. A half-dozen or so pearly-white, puffed-up doves gingerly moved around their not-so-little platform, entering and exiting their rather grand castle, nodding politely and  making gentle sounds of satisfaction to each other as they did so – all very civilised, very French aristocrat


looking down from the surrounding grey granite ramparts of the monastery and making ugly guttural croaking sounds was a  ragged legion of black crows, very Irish peasant. The doves seemed oblivious of these creatures crowding the ramparts; the crows seemed to have little else on their minds but a sense of  the injustice of it all. And that’s how it was intended, 0r so it seemed, by some hidden law: the doves in custom-built comfort, the crows outlawed to the outskirts


a solitary crow launched itself from the ramparts and landed awkwardly on the doves’ circular walkway. The doves on either side moved hurriedly away, not a panicky retreat, rather the moving away from an unwelcome newcomer with whom they wanted no contact whatsoever


another crow made a bumpy landing, this time with some excuse because it had in its beak a long twig which it carefully and cleverly, to the startled cooings and uneasy shufflings of the doves, inserted in one of the arched doorways. The doves edged closer together, the two crows, without a struggle gained free access to at least a third of the circular board. The crows cawed loudly, the doves cooed softly


a third crow descended with a twig in its beak which it duly inserted in the doorway


another and soon the half-dozen crowded doves were having to balance precariously in ever-decreasing space as they became outnumbered by the relentless nest-building crows


a door opened and a monk carrying two pails appeared. He put the pails down to shut the door behind him. Another crow descended, landed, inserted its twig.  Before taking up his pails, the monk clapped his hands. Clap clap clap. With a leathery flapping of wings and more cawcawing, the crows retreated en masse back to the dreary ramparts, the monk crossed the tonsured lawn with his shiny pails on his way to the vegetable garden, pausing only to pull the twigs from the doorway of the doves’ house, the doves once more occupying the full circle of their walkway with space to spare, once more nodding and making gentle sounds of satisfaction to one another.

The ungainly crows  on the ramparts hopped restlessly from one perch to another, cawing, waiting.

Church, State, Nobles, Peasants – it was all there – the history of Ireland in a monastery garden.


The  Orkney Music Festival


all fiddlers and floozies and dancing and drinking and staying up all night  and  more music and dancing  till the birds take over at dawn…..great….

but the Edinburgh Festival is something else….it’s great to take part  as a performer or writer or whatever but great fun even as a humble spectator –  hundreds of shows to choose from………the Festival is everywhere , the good, the bad and the mysterious….

Just because I happened to be passing  down Chamber Street where  a Belgian Company’s drama  production was showing I went in on the off chance I might come across something unusual.

I got my ticket and was told to wait in the bar   –      sort of unusual all right, a bit mysterious – no barman, just me … where was the audience? What –
A  door opened, a woman smiled and beckoned and  led me from the bar/waiting room down stairs to a wheel chair. I was seated in the wheelchair then quietly told I was going to be blindfolded and have my wrists loosely tied to the arms of my wheelchair was that okay? ( Normally NO NO NO but in this context it was okay. Sort of..(once started, no going back).

Then I was pushed off, through a bead curtain, stopped, someone whispered in my ear, moved on, I was interviewed by someone else, soft music was played, someone stroked my hair and asked me if I wanted to stroke hers (I assumed it was ‘hers’)  which I did and I did. And so on.
“Can I ask you a question?”  a voice whispered and I must have nodded or said ‘Yes’  because the voice went on  ” Are you happy?” and I  found myself giving a detailed account of my version of how happy/unhappy I was to a stranger I couldn’t even see and getting  back  wise and empathetic comments in exchange……
Then I was pushed elsewhere to meet other voices out of the darkness asking other questions…….At one stage my blindfold was whipped off and  I found the sweet voice I had been listening to belonged to a woman dressed as the Pope but with a long white beard like Santa Claus. “Do you mind if I take your photograph?”  she  asked and  of course I said ‘Yes’ then the blindfold was replaced. And  the journey continued.

Smell this. What does it remind you of? What do you think it is? Taste that. Is it sweet or sour? What does this feel like? Rough? Soft? Can you feel it move under your hand?

Finally I was untied and unblindfolded in front of a wall that was lined with photographs of ‘the audience’, mine included, sort of proof that the whole experience was real, had actually taken place, hadn’t been some crazy dream, then I was ushered to the exit and released into the real Embra afternoon air with of course someone playing the bagpipes in the distance.
What was that all about? Did I really say all that? Did…..?  What….? Why…….How…….Where…..?

Loved it. Loved every minute of it.

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