“Now that I’m in Secondary School, I think I should wear longs.”
“I think I should change from shorts to longs.”
He smiled briefly, dismissively. “Presently.”
I persisted. “How presently?”
He folded his newspaper. “When you begin to show signs of becoming a man.”
“You will recognise them soon enough. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get out of shorts. You will regret it in later life. These lads from Marr College who trounced you at rugby last Saturday, they were all in shorts.”
It was perfectly true. They weren’t allowed to go into longs until fourth year. They appeared off the bus in their shorts and we mocked and jeered and they said nothing and proceeded to beat us 96 – 0.
My father mused, “I wore shorts every day for a year when I was stationed in Accra.”
“It was 100 degrees in the shade!”
But I could see I was getting nowhere.
It only takes seven minutes to walk from Broomhill to Hyndland. Marlborough Avenue, Churchill Drive (the Blenheimesque nomenclature apposite on the morn of a conflict), over the railway and into the dazzling russet tenement canyons of red sandstone. Taxi, the school bully, a paranoiac psychopath, was lurking at the school entrance.
“You lookin’ at me, Jim?”
“Aye you were.”
“Really I wasn’t.”
“You was lookin’ at me.” He took out his chib, a door hinge, and made a few mystic passes.
“I can assure you…”
Behind me, on Airlie Street, I thought I heard a cock crow. I had a notion one day I would have to confront Taxi, and I dreaded it. I was yet to realise that the only thing in life to dread was one’s own failure to rise to a challenge. When you stopped being challenged, then you would know that life was done with you, would pass you by unmolested, eating your McCallum in your cloth cap at the Silver Slipper, or the Cosy Neuk.
I asked my father what to do about the Taxi problem.
“I’d punch him on the nose!”
Yet he was an elder of the Kirk, and Our Lord taught us to turn the other cheek, and to forgive seventy times seven times. Wasn’t there a contradiction there?
Dad listened patiently. He said, “Forgiveness is not the same as passivity. Were we supposed to sit idly by while the Germans bombed our cities? You forgive, but first you must survive, and you must take care of your friends and loved ones. Forgive, but do not forget.”
The next Saturday morning I was training down at Scotstoun Showgrounds with my friend Iain. Tall for his age, tanned, lithe, sporty, popular, he could outrun me. But he was conserving his energy for a cross-country race that afternoon, so we merely jogged round the track. Afterwards his father picked us up in the car on Danes Drive and we headed along Victoria Park Drive North and he dropped me off on Crow Road. A white Volkswagen, like the one parked by the zebra crossing on the Abbey Road sleeve. I remember it, clear as day. I wished Iain Good Luck in the Race.
On Monday morning a classmate, Arthur, met me as I walked on to the Old Building playground.
“You heard about Iain?”
It had happened on the race. He had collapsed. Nobody knew why. Something to do with his heart. I was suffused with grief, and loss, but mostly with fear. It tolls for thee. Timor mortis conturbat me. It was the first time I had been touched by a death. When I was wee, I was walking down Byres Road with my Auntie Mhairi and we came across the bloodied corpse of a cyclist whose wheel had jammed in the tram rails just before a tram had run him over. A distraught woman screamed for a blanket to cover the body. But this event touched me not. I was cocooned in the absolute warmth and safety of my family’s love. I knew I was immortal.
There’s the difference. When Iain died, I suddenly understood I had been mistaken. Until then, I had thought of life as a pageant. School, university, career, love, marriage, dynasty, friends, community, hobbies, interests, travel… But hadn’t it been the same for Iain? Life wasn’t a procession after all. I might walk under a bus. Anything could happen! It wasn’t even in the lap of the gods. That was the really scary thing. God didn’t have a clue what was going to happen next. Not a clue.
I walked towards the Old Building entrance in a state of high emotion. Taxi and his snide jeering carping minions were lounging around the steps, cat-calling, hissing, spitting. I was level with him when the gob of phlegm landed on my sleeve.
I lashed out.
It was unpremeditated. The back of my right hand smacked him square on the nose. Neither he nor I expected it. How was he to know that I was bereft, morbidly active, and up for anything? We fell on the playground’s dusty asphalt like a pair of fighting dogs, a welter of flying limbs, kicking, punching. I felt no pain. I would throttle him, impervious to the blows he was raining down on my temples. The boys around us surrendered themselves to the blood lust of the mob, shimmering like a hideous amoeba as we pitched and rolled.
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!”
Abruptly the crowd scattered. We were hauled apart. It was Eggo (Classics), tall, slim, and aristocratic, looking distastefully down his aquiline nose. I was gratified to notice that Taxi’s nose was bleeding. He was marched off in the direction of the New Building and I was taken indoors and reprimanded, but not unkindly, and only in a formal way. I felt released, carefree. The purgation of pity and terror.
A long time afterwards, a news item, barely a column inch hidden deep within the inner pages of The Herald reported a natural catastrophe somewhere in Africa. A lake had belched in the night and silently spilled a million tons of carbon dioxide down upon a slumbering village a thousand feet below. The entire village, men, women, children, domestic animals, and livestock had been asphyxiated. As I read the report, I had a strange olfactory reminiscence of the playground at Hyndland, of blood, dust, and asphalt, and I realised that Arthur’s announcement to me of Iain’s death had been the moment when I had ceased to believe that God took any active interest in the micromanagement of the planet. Yet oddly enough I didn’t hold it against Him. He was wringing His hands in dismay just as much as we were. I became convinced no deus ex machina would solve my petty problems and preoccupations for me. Yet paradoxically, was it not propitious that Taxi’s nose should have presented itself, there and then, to be bloodied? It really was an Amazing Grace.
Next day, with Dad’s blessing, I turned up at school in a pair of cavalry twills, a donkey jacket, and a peaked John Lennon cap. My style was nothing if not eclectic.