Tricksters, p.1Norman Maclean
A NOTE ON THE AUTHOR
Born in Glasgow in 1936, Norman Maclean was educated at school and university there before abandoning his childhood ambition of becoming a helicopter pilot – or was it a cowboy? – and drifting into the role of educationalist and spending fourteen miserable years as a teacher of Latin and Mathematics in schools all over Scotland. He garnered much fame after winning two Gold Medals at the National Mod – for poetry and singing – in the same year, 1967; the only person ever to do so. Shortly afterwards he began a career, as he would say himself, as a clown. The twenty odd years he spent as a stand-up comedian performing in variegated venues throughout the English-speaking world has caused him to book a place on a daytime television show renowned for its shouty, self-righteous former-salesman presenter. However, that said, it is in the roles of comic and musician Maclean is still best known today. In 2009 Birlinn published his acclaimed autobiography, The Leper’s Bell.
First published as Slaightearan in 2007 by Clàr
This edition published in 2011 by
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Copyright © Norman Maclean 2011
The moral right of Norman Maclean to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
ISBN 978 1 78027 007 4
eBook ISBN 978 0 85790 060 9
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Designed and typeset by Iolaire Typesetting, Newtonmore
Printed and bound by Bell & Bain Ltd, Glasgow
For Alison Rae
1 Uig pier
2 To feed the flame
3 I know what you did in Golspie
4 Rachel’s not finished yet
5 The housekeeper from Lewis
6 Murdo pricks up his ears
7 A secret meeting in Room 3
8 East and West
9 Girl talk
13 Rachel’s revenge
14 Murdo has doubts
15 The Eriskay Giant
Me, I’m from Kyles Flodda in Benbecula. Murdo, son of Boozy Ronald, they call me. Here I am, sitting on the couch in the living room of a little flat near the Shawlands district of Glasgow. It’s a cold afternoon in February and I’m reading a book on Economics and making occasional notes in a folder. We have exams in six weeks’ time at Strathclyde University where I’m studying Statistics, Sociology, Psychology and Industrial Law. I want to gain a Postgraduate Diploma in Personnel Management. I can hardly believe that I, an overweight slob, fast approaching forty, who smokes and drinks too much, am a full-time student once more. And I’m simply loving it! To tell the truth, I’m not as keen on the bevvy as I used to be. I still have a heavy tobacco habit but I’ve severely cut down on the alcohol.
The sound of the outside door being opened interrupts my reverie. Two minutes later, a beautiful young woman enters the room carrying two tiny glasses of Disaronno, an Italian liqueur we’ve come to enjoy very much. She sits next to me on the couch and kisses me lightly on the cheek. We both take a modest sip and politely place the glasses on a rectangular table in front of us.
This is Rachel, the Doctor’s daughter, from North Uist. She’s twenty years younger than me and, if we’re talking about PR, there’s no woman between the Butt of Lewis and Barra Head who can hold a candle to Rachel MacKinnon. No matter how hard you stretch it, there is nothing within eyeshot that is better to look at. Six feet tall, long, straight hair that falls to the small of her back, the face of an angel and a well put-together body that has caused many a traffic accident – Rachel is a danger to any man with a weak heart. In addition, she’s very smart. She’s reading Law at Glasgow University and there’s no doubt that she’ll graduate with Honours in her final year.
So, here’s the pair of us relaxing, taking little sips of Disaronno and chatting about how our respective days have gone at uni. Am I a lucky guy or what?
Around eight months ago things were completely different. In the summer of 2010 I would have gulped the contents of the glass as quickly as I could. Then, I’d immediately want more. For years I had been filling glasses with strong drink – whisky, Eldorado rum, brandy, wine, beer – any kind of rubbish I could get my hands on. Talk about a changed man!
But I’d better start at the beginning . . .
‘We’ll go on a tour of the Highlands and Islands with your sketches, Murdo, and it’ll be simply marvellous.’ That’s what Rachel proposed at the start of last summer. Mickey the Dunce here agreed and I had no recollection of my grandfather’s words: ‘You want to get into trouble, son, you should get into trouble for profit, not just for self-expression.’ ‘Salt and Pepper’ – that’s what we called ourselves – went on the road and, at first, we did quite well . . . we did very well indeed . . . but . . . well . . . I kind of ran out of steam . . . I don’t know . . . I . . . sort of . . . lost the plot.
On the last night of the tour, a Monday night, the night before we’d go back to Uist, we should have been playing in Broadford but . . . well, we lost the hall . . . Well, we didn’t lose the hall – we know where it is, it’s still in the same place – what it was, the committee wouldn’t give it to us. We pressed on to Uig and landed in a hotel there called the Tartan Pagoda, and if relations between me and Rachel were fraught before this, they got really bad after I got embroiled with this guy and his television crew. There’s a motto in our family and it certainly applies to me: ‘If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong.’
There was this guy, Sam was his name, and he was in television . . . and I was in my shell-suit. I consulted my watch with all the intensity of a professor of history scrutinising a script in Sanskrit as Sam’s monologue went over the fifty-minute mark. He had bought me a nip in the bar at quarter past ten, and now at a quarter to midnight, or possibly a week later, we were making our way to the dining room for a bite to eat. My jaw was aching with the effort of suppressing yawns as he went on and on and on about film locations in Uist and about acting talent and how stupid they were, and above all about money. Drams were flying, so was I, and some of the locals were pretending not to listen, and he gave every appearance of being pleased by the attention, as though he deserved it.
‘Oh, yes, Our Land was written by me,’ he roared, thrusting his face close to mine and smoothing his hair in a self-satisfied manner. ‘I take all the blame, ha ha. Guilty as charged. I’m only the humble author.’ He obviously thought this was funny . . . I didn’t. But I didn’t know what I should say. Should I have told him that I was an actor, and writer, too? Should I have mentioned that I had viewed Our Land and would rather smear dung on my head than watch it? Or should I just concentrate on the drink until the curtain came down? My confusion wasn’t helped by Sam’s artificial smile, a fixed rictus that would have scared Bronson. He seemed to be waiting for me to say something, something that I had to say because he was a famous person. But since I didn’t know what it was, he was obliged to keep on talking.
‘But that’s enough about me,’ he said, and anyone could tell he wasn’t finding this easy. ‘Tell me what you think about me!’ I was out my skull when we finally ate – me, Sam the Etive Television guy and Yvonne, his
The following day, the twenty-fourth of August, although things started off rather painfully, what with a toxic hangover and Rachel’s nagging, they gradually got better as the day went on.
24 August 2010, 9.30 a.m.
John MacNicol stood in the centre of the parking area at Uig pier in Skye waving his arms and bellowing. It was a warm and clammy morning, and sweat showed on his face and on his black shirt bearing the logo of Caledonian-MacBrayne on the breast. He was about fifty, five six. He wore heavy black boots and he stamped his feet while he roared into the kind of metal megaphone favoured by the police and this made his voice sound distorted: ‘Come out of that van immediately. Hands in the air. You are surrounded . . . by other vehicles. This is . . . the Traffic Controller. Conduct of this nature will not be tolerated . . . not in the middle of a queue . . . on Uig pier!’
Rachel walked from the nearside of the van – she had been rocking the van and beating on its side – round past the bonnet and looked down contemptuously on the middle-aged Skyeman. ‘Are you going to order me to throw down my handbag as well, you half-wit? I’m trying to waken the guy who’s inside.’
‘Oh! I thought . . .’
‘Dirty old man!’ Rachel said. ‘What a welcome for two hard-working actors! Can’t you read the writing on our van?’
MacNicol closely examined the writing on the side of the van. COMEDY ON TOUR – FUN AND LAUGHTER WITH SALT AND PEPPER. ‘Salt and Pepper!’ he said with a sneer. ‘I’ve heard about you. Our Mary saw you in Staffin one night and she said the pair of you were going straight to Hell . . . on wheels!’ With considerable difficulty he took his eyes off Rachel and glanced at the van. ‘The man who’s locked himself in is Salt, right?’
No sooner had he said this than Murdo made an appearance wearing cotton checked trousers of the kind much favoured by circus clowns and a baggy top of deep purple hue. He swallowed three times in succession and looked around him as though in a daze. ‘Many a perilous drunk I’ve been on,’ he intoned faintly, ‘but if they were all rolled into one, this is the mother of them all.’
‘By the look of him,’ the Skyeman said, ‘it wasn’t salt that’s giving him a drouth today. I’d say he was out his box somewhere last night.’
‘We were in Aultbea actually,’ Rachel lied smoothly. ‘Last night of the tour and all that.’
‘Well, you’re in Skye now,’ MacNicol said, ‘and the ferry’s due in about an hour’s time. Are you sailing on her?’
‘You bet, lad,’ Murdo barked roughly, ‘even if I have to swim out to meet her.’
‘Maybe that’s what you’ll have to do yet, Pop,’ MacNicol said with a mocking laugh, ‘if you don’t have tickets. Are you booked on?’
‘Ah . . . we haven’t . . . I’m just going over to the office right away,’ Rachel said in a quivery voice.
‘Right,’ the Traffic Controller said, ‘drive over and join that queue across there – where it says LOCAL TRAFFIC – and you can park this old rattletrap . . . And, lassie, if I were you, I’d leave the old boy over there as well . . . in case anybody sees him. He’ll give folk the horrors.’
Rachel steered over to the area designated LOCAL TRAFFIC. Murdo’s moans accompanied the straining engine. Once stopped, she turned to Murdo and spoke angrily. ‘Murdo, stop your whingeing, and listen carefully. I’ve got bad news for you and I know it’s going to be painful for you to hear it.’
‘Rachel, love,’ Murdo said with a heavy sigh, ‘I can’t possibly feel much worse than I do just now.’
‘ “We’ll see”, as the blind man said,’ Rachel replied.
Me, I’m from . . . ah . . . from Back in Lewis. Well, I was born in the Poligan, the only son of Effie MacMillan, but I was brought up in Inverness, Aberdeen and Perth. Sam Kerr’s my Sunday name, but I much prefer the nickname they gave me when I was still quite young. That’s ‘Sam the Scam’. I never knew my father – some bastard from the Lowlands who abandoned his wife shortly after I was born – and my poor mother had to work in the Northern Bank in different branches where she was bored out of her skull. When I was growing up, she always used to advise me to take a secure job in a bank. She wanted, I’m sure, to ensure that her son suffered the same agony she endured. When I entered the world of television, she was not best pleased. As it turned out, her own job wasn’t as secure as mine. Much of the staff at the Northern Bank was ‘slimmed down’, and replaced by stacks of electronic machines and computers which made a box-up of people’s savings, chewed up credit cards, and charged usurious rates of interest that would have shamed the moneylenders Jesus scourged from the Temple. These machines were free to steal without any human supervision.
Never mind, here I am lying on a blanket on the pavement of a street called the Cowgate in Edinburgh. It’s a cold, wet night in February, and me and a crowd of people, mostly pale-faced males with a couple of females thrown in, are waiting for the big lorry carrying the priest and a young team of boys and girls who give out sandwiches and soup to the unfortunate souls who are homeless. I can hardly believe that I, Sam the Scam, formerly Head of Drama and Documentaries at Etive Television, am now considered a member of the underprivileged.
‘Homeless?’ The priest is approaching with a steaming mug and a roll.
‘Not for long.’ I’m hoping to get back with Dolina, though she put me out of the house as soon as she discovered I’d lost my job and the days of the megabucks were long gone.
‘Because we’re MWH. Sorry, Meals on Wheels for the Homeless.’
‘Well, yes, I suppose I am. Temporarily homeless.’
‘I understand. My name’s Kenneth.’ The priest hands over the food. ‘What’s yours?’
‘Donald.’ The lie issues from my mouth with practised ease. All my life I’ve been telling lies. In IRA, or Inverness Royal Academy, and in Dundee University, where I opted for Journalism, I didn’t spend much time studying. I used to cheat on teachers and lecturers, cribbing assignments from the few pals I had. This habit of deceit was extremely useful when I finally reached the world of television. It’s true, if you put down on your CV that you’re a self-centred bastard, it’ll do you no harm at all.
I know all about this. The first thing I did when I moved from the Perthshire Gazette, where I was a tipster for our readership who liked to gamble on the horses, to Etive Television was to wield the axe. I got rid of every producer, presenter and director in the place and hired two or three people who would do exactly as I’d tell them. This action saved the company a great deal of money, and my standing with the Board increased dramatically.
How things have changed! I used to cut back on staff expenses and what I skimmed went into my own pocket. I was so well off that some days I couldn’t remember which of my cars I’d taken to work in the morning. I’d have to go down to the car park at lunchtime and look around. ‘Ah, yes,’ I’d say, ‘it was raining when I left home this morning. I took the red one.’
But the wheel has turned full circle and the warmth has become bitter cold.
However, I’d better start at the beginning, the summer of last year . . .
We were on our way to the Uists – my PA, Yvonne, a cameraman, soundman, a sparky and myself, Leader of the Pack – to shoot footage for a documentary called In the Footsteps of Erskine Beveridge. We lodged in a hotel called the Tartan Pagoda on the Monday night with the intention of catching the ferry to Lochmaddy on Tuesday, the twenty-fourth of August. Although things had started off rather promisingly, it was to become my day of disaster and shame . . .
To feed the flame
24 August 2010, 9.30 a.m.
Sam Kerr lay, naked, on his back, in the middle of a bed in Room 3 in the Tartan Pagoda. His arms and legs were stretched out in the form of an X. His head lolled on his shoulder as though he had been garrotted. He was a large, well-built man, twenty-eight years of age; a descendant of a race of seamen well accustomed to extreme cold and spray from hostile waves. His hair was long and thick, dyed yellow, and flowed over his ears to a loosely plaited pigtail at the back. He sported an all-over tan, for he was seriously addicted to sun beds. The bleep of his mobile phone awoke him. He got up, scratched his chest, pulled on a silk bathrobe and padded into the bathroom. After micturating, he washed his hands and put out his tongue at the mirror above the handbasin. This tongue resembled a slice of steak that had been baking in the sun for at least a fortnight. Too many cigarettes and drinks last night. And every night. He had a dim memory of standing at the bar casting pearls of wisdom to Yvonne and a pudding of a man from Benbecula, and though he couldn’t put a face to the guy, he was pretty confident that, with his natural way with words, he had impressed him. The retard who had been so drunk he’d tried to chat up Yvonne – what a deluded fool! He quickly erased the memory of the previous night from his mind.
This was the worst time for somebody connected to television who was about to embark on filming a programme that would certainly gain another BAFTA award and reap fame and fortune for its creator. This was the time he had to haul himself out of sleep, all alone, examine his dried-up tongue, rub his red-rimmed eyes, and finger the stubble on his jowls. He wondered, for a moment, if the game was worth the candle. To banish these depressing thoughts he decided to take a shower. When he had finished his ablutions he felt invigorated and spoke aloud: ‘Rangers 3 Celtic 1. Have we visions to mix and awards to be won? Yes, Sam, baby, you certainly have!’ His electric razor started to hum, and Sam’s brain started to hum too. First, he’d check every part of his room for anything that he could possibly steal, and then he’d have a quick look in the holdall that contained his treasure and his heart.
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