Big People, Small Island, Small Boats.
Malky phoned me to come and have a pint. I was surprised he was still alive. He was a wee guy with the fuzz of a ginger beard. He dressed funny, even during the eighties when everybody but me, dressed like they were regularly on Top of the Pops. And he’d a belter of a second name. Mukherjee. But I just called him Big Malky. He kept me right when I was down in London. We fleeced tourists at Westminster Abbey. Malky was fluent in most languages, but he loved the Japanese. He could speak their language, of course. I was the patsy. It was well-paid, but got sucked into terribly underpaid work, teaching English as a foreign language.
I met him in a snug in the Scottia Bar. An old pub, near Glasgow Central Station, we could both feel comfortable. I put a whisky on the table, no water for him. He used to say he liked to drink it in the Scottish way, as if he too was Scottish. I nudged the drink towards him when he came in. Nothing that happened, but everything had changed. He was a skull, bent backwards with a stick to keep him upright. I guessed cancer, but he wasn’t for telling. He pitched his head forward, and started talking in the way he used to, words bubbling over. He was an expert on Poet’s Corner and Chaucer in particular.
‘The Stone of Destiny, the Coronation Stone, was taken from Westminster Abbey, and brought back to its ancestral home in Scotland.’ He licked his lips and sipped at his whisky.
‘The wrecking of a thirteenth-century chair, some say, was collateral damage. Payback for the theft. Others say the stone returned to Westminster was just a shabby auld stone lying about that looked the part, much like our monarch. Charles III can warm his arse on it. But us Scots are good at intellectualising any grievance that involves the English. Wrapping it in mythology like a haggis supper in dated newsprint. Scotland against England at football wasn’t just a football match. We tore down the goalposts and ate the turf, and that was when we won.’
‘You didnae even like fitba,’ I reminded him. ‘You look under the weather.’
‘Fuck off, what do you know about under the weather? If you’d any sense you’d be stupid.’ His hands shook, but he was determined not to spill his drink, tilting towards his lips and sighing. ‘Recently, sixty passengers, including three kids and a baby, were rescued from a ferry with engine trouble travelling to Orkney on the Scapa Flow. No casualties. Coastguards responded quickly to Mayday calls. Volunteer, RNLI crews from Stromness and Longhope picked up the ferry’s crew, its passengers, and their luggage. They took them the short hop to shore. It would be something the passengers could tell their grandkids.
We should have known better. The love of God cost money. As the prophet Rumi was prone to say, ‘Suddenly, the world grows dim.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ I asked.
His heel tapped beneath the table. ‘Cause there’s no one else to tell. There was another ship. You hear about that? Waves regular as a heart attack. Tons of water, cresting and breaking. The boat barely afloat and filling with saltwater. To call it a boat was exaggeration. It was an inflated child’s paddling pool with an engine. There were kids there too. Crouched down with their slicked heads sticking out of their thin coats, chittering and clinging to their mums. It was so cold there was no warmth in hiding under an armpit as huge waves washed over them. There were more people in the paddling pool than water, but that was to change. It was exhausting holding on. A neighbour let go. The young quiet girl was washed away by a thirty-foot wave that dropped their raft two stories below. A child screamed for his mum. Words sucked into the roar of the sea. The distance to eternity shortened.
The men on the boats with phones, held them to their ears. The British coastguard wouldn’t pick up. The French coastguards told them they were in British waters and offered the help of a number they had already memorised, and punched the numbers again and again. The rinse cycle repeated over and over, rising and falling. Bellowing into their phones in different languages. They called family and relatives, asked them to phone the authorities. To tell them they loved them. To send help. They couldn’t hang on. But the Coastguards will come and get them. There would be boats and helicopters with baskets dangling beneath them.’
‘Malky are you OK?’ I’d a lager shandy with my whisky. I sipped at the shallow draught and looked into his bright eyes. ‘You forget Malky, I was there with you.’ I let my jaw drop as if on a hinge and made strangulated noises that had the bar staff shuffling over to peer at us. I’d got rather good at it when we plagued the tourists. It was part of our con routine. Misdirection. Malky would explain me away. Make me other. So the tourists and him would draw together in a conspiracy to help me to get better, to be better. All it needed was money. Their money. Any spare cash. No reasonable offer refused. But he kept wittering on.
‘Seeing is inside you, when you grow up by the sea. You spend most of your time looking at the waves, feeling your feet shift to compensate, even on shore. Wondering what bright gifts they might bring.
An island nation. People that owned the land owned the people on the land. To fish and work the land wasn’t enough. We knew that all too well. Schooled in the spectre of Cool Britiania, and the three Rs that made us Great Britain. Resolution, Repulse, Revenge with enough nuclear capacity to begin a war and end the world.
Braveheart Scotland from biscuit tins. The potato famine didn’t just hit Ireland, but the islands. Old men of thirty-five to fifty stopped eating to give their children’s children a chance. A hamlet in Argyll found full of dead people from the same cruel disease called hunger. Cholera they called it. Yet in my small cluster of cottages, I was saved, taken away and brought up by relatives.’
‘Malky,’ I reminded him. ‘You told me you were brought up in Pakistan. That’s where you picked up your flare for languages. You told me they sent you to London because they’d have stoned you for being a homosexual and saved you that way.’
‘That’s bullshit. You don’t know me. My grandfather was a boat builder. No warped planks of wood. Each lying snug to the other, and by ancient virtue, bound to the sea. To compensate for the small boats and the waters vastness and depth, it had to be tough, but lithe as a young maiden.
Our grandparents fought in the war to end all wars and had homes fit for heroes. Our parents held close the promise to slay want, disease, ignorance, idleness, and squalor. Only a failing and underfunded NHS remains. The truth is, while we anoint a King of island nations with due pageantry, we drown poor people and blame them for the flood.’
Malky started gurgling and frothing at the mouth. I watched him closely as his legs kicked. I don’t think he was pretending.