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United Kingdom

new internationalist
issue 262 - December 1994

Scotch on the Rocks
Or from Highlands to low life – Alison Napier was near the end of the journey.

Illustration by JIM TURNER Brian lived in the Highlands, in a cottage, near a village – a popular village with big, old houses turned into big, old hotels. Tourists came and stayed in the village that became a town. They watched the Highland Games and bought souvenir programmes, and back in the hotel with oak staircases and red carpets and antlers on every wall they drank tea and ate shortbread.

Before lunch there’d be a guided walk through a gate, Hotel Patrons Only, down a path by a stream, ice-cold like Cola, brown and frothy. They’d creep and stumble and gingerly step over rocks and puddles. Wet ferns and bracken slapped their legs, the midges were out, so thank God we could turn back for lunch, for Scotch broth and venison roast. At night a performance, a concert, a ceilidh, a great deal of whisky, a great deal of whisky. And a traditional English breakfast next morning.

This is where Brian lived – a wee boy in long grey shorts and a shirt and a pullover and a cap, scrambling along tracks, over boulders, up trees, up hills, hiding near the railway line to watch the trains, only three a day mind you, and fewer now. His father worked the signals at the station in the village, and he drank a lot and hit his wife and sons, but couldn’t remember after, and his mother kept her head down and gritted her teeth and bore children as her mother had done before her. An ordinary family. Brian went to school and did his lessons, an ordinary boy who hummed and whistled and swished the tops off the bracken with a stick.

Twenty years later, wife and kids and job and house behind him, Brian was living in London, a hostel full of big old staircases and hundreds of beds. Residents Only. A Victorian workhouse in fact, for the derelicts, the dossers, the winos, the losers, the drunks, the scroungers, the beggars, the wasters, the outcasts, the scum, and there are only two rules you know, no alcohol and no fighting on the premises and it’s your choice.

Oh God, it’s Brian again – lurching up to the office hatch with narrow red eyes and thick speech we cannot translate, not even I, and we share a common tongue. ‘Go to bed, Brian,’ we say with one voice, scarcely glancing up from the Situations Vacant pages in the newspaper. Just go to bed. ‘Bed’ is a six-feet-by-two-feet bench with a thin stained mattress, a sheet and a blanket, in a cubicle eight feet by four feet that smells of disinfectant and urine, with hardboard walls that do not reach the ceiling and a door that does not lock. Please. Go to bed.

He has bumped into the cigarette machine and is kicking it. Perhaps it will work now, it’s been jammed for days. He is rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands, sobbing and crying and swearing and running crazily to the Gents where he locks himself in, the only private space there is. Brian, I call. Brian. ‘Leave me alane. Leave me alane the lo’ o’ yiz.’ The crying stops. I hear the sound of vomiting. Then crying again, quieter. I tiptoe away.

Another night, at half past two, we hear this god-awful singing in the street, loud and tuneless, ‘Oh flower o’ Scotland, when wull we see yer like again, who fought an’ died fur yer wee bit hill an’ glen, an’ stood against them...’, verse after tuneless verse, what a performance; I can hear people opening windows, people shouting, the phone rings and it is someone in the posh flats opposite: ‘Shut him up or I’ll call the police’. The sound of breaking glass. From their balconies they are throwing down milk bottles at him, oh if only they had thrown flowers, oh Brian why are you always drunk, on cider and extra-strong lager and a great deal of whisky, a great deal of whisky.

His friend Fred says that Brian can’t remember singing or being dragged inside, so don’t mention it, he’ll be awful embarrassed.

I move on, get a better job, a nicer room in a smaller city. The hostel is closed and may be sold, prime office space in Central London. Some who lived there are homeless and some who worked there are jobless, and I hear about George and Jimmy and John from Australia and oh yes that drunk Brian, he jumped under an Inter-City 125 train. The London to Edinburgh 125. The London to Edinburgh 125. The London to Edinburgh 125.

So I drank a great deal of whisky, a great deal of whisky, and wandered away and hid by the railway line to watch the trains, heading north.

Alison Napier has gone back to Scotland to write full-time, poverty permitting.

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New Internationalist issue 262 magazine cover This article is from the December 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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