LOSER

“I’m confident you’ll be getting in touch soon, ma’m,” I said softly, because I was aware I had really socked it to this resident of London and I knew she was suffering from informational overload. “If you or Mr Relph or Miss Danischewsky wish to contact me, just leave a note addressed to ‘The Hebridean Hitchcock’, care of the Public Bar, the Castlebay Hotel. Everyone will know who it’s meant for. I’m well known as a rabid film buff in these parts.”

The casting director’s response noises to my valediction were more bovine than human.

Those readers still awake at this point will appreciate that my fatal flaw as a twenty-year-old was a tendency to earthquake every dialogue I was ever involved in. Where Roddy, and indeed the merchant seamen, were content to take a part in Rockets Galore for a modest cheque, I wanted to take over the entire film. Roddy kept talking about the smallest things, I kept countering with the largest: How can you be satisfied with simple pleasures like getting a degree, getting a teaching job and sipping coffee in the morning, Roddy? Don’t you want big things – TV and film contracts, travel to exotic spots, writing a bestseller? Roddy and most of my friends are into small reliable pleasures. I jump ahead into big and speculative things.

Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of my week’s vacation in Barra. I waited and waited but the Hebridean Hitchcock’s in-box remained empty. Funds ran out. I finally had to gargle my pride and borrow a considerable sum from Ruairidh to enable me to return to Glasgow.

After witnessing the arrival of the leading man, Donald Sinden, at the little airport, I justified my detachment from the entire project in a typically misguided way. You see, I was under the misapprehension that Donald was a native of Barra and the ‘Sinden’ element in his name was just another example of the weird way the natives of that island parsed their patronymics. In Barra (and in Lewis) patronymics like Peadair mac ‘Eem’, Ailig ‘Fat’,  Mac  a’ ‘Non’ abound, and when the locals told me that Dòmhnall ‘Sinden’ was flying up from Glasgow that afternoon I thought that he was just another seaman who was going to spend his shore leave from Denholm’s Shipping indulging in a lucrative sideline. This was a talent I just had to see.

In the event I concluded there was something distinctly off about this guy. For one thing he was wearing a light grey Prince of Wales check lightweight suit with sunglasses. A dead giveaway was the fact that the shades were perched on the top of his head.

Tiormaich m’ fhallus, Dry my perspiration!

No one from Barra wears sunglasses perched two inches back from his hairline. Come to think of it, no one from Barra wears sunglasses. Then I see what he really is. He has £450 Bally slip-ons on his feet – without socks! This guy descending the steps from the plane to the sands of the Tràigh Mhòr is from England. He’s a Schneider. I almost want to shout it out.

That’s it. They’ll have to try this little venture without me.

And that’s what they did.

My eventual departure from the island was a confused affair. I’m lying in a groggy state in a wee white bed in a bedroom of the Craigard Hotel. Mary Ann Maclean and her husband Neil are standing next to the bed. She’s advising me in fierce whispers that it’s time to go. Neil is half-singing, half reciting a Gaelic song:

‘Cha tèid mis’ a chaoidh rim dheòin, I’ll never ever go willingly . . .’

And like the subject of the song who eventually went to the young son of the Red Earl, I went, too. Needless to say, after all the drams and pints I had drunk, my mind was a swamp of regret. It would not be the last time I took my leave of a place in a confused condition.

 

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TOO MUCH

Talk over her, Norrie. She asked you what you’re reading. Tell her. Make it up if you have to.

“I’ve been re-acquainting myself recently,” I said affectedly, “with Cahiers du Cinéma, particularly the article by Truffaut attacking La qualité française and the auteur theory. Cahiers, you’ll recall, re-invented the basic tenets of film criticism and theory — resulting in the re-evaluation of Hollywood films and directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and Fritz Lang .”

(I’ve hinted that university undergraduates back in the day had a big tip for themselves. My tip was possibly bigger than any held by my contemporaries.)

“Mr Maclean, please . . .” the casting director attempted to interrupt me.

“I’d really like to get your director’s take on this. Can I meet Mr Relph, please?” I asked.

“Listen . . .”

Smash her, a Thormoid. Take a deep breath and carry on. Give her both barrels.

“I’d like to mention a book I’ve been studying in Higher Ordinary Celtic this year,” I proceeded to lecture, “It’s called The Dialect of the Island of Barra. It’s a real sodium amatol. Only a superhuman intelligence can read and understand this work. The author is an eminent Scandinavian philologist called Borgstrom. Tell you what, I’d be willing to offer my services to your scriptwriter, Monja Danischewsky – that’s her name, isn’t it? – as a sort of script consultant or, alternatively . . .”

“Please, stop talking, sir,” the Casting Director pleaded.

“I’ve just had a great idea,” I said. “I could hire myself out as a dialogue coach. You know, the accents of many of the supporting actors in Whisky Galore, and particularly that of the voice-over artist in the opening scenes, were considered by readers of Cahiers du Cinéma a trifle – comment on dit? – un petit peu faux, n’est ce pas?”

You’ve got her on the ropes, Norrie. She’s got her buff gloves up over her ears already.

“I see the film as a great opportunity,” I continued without pausing.

“For whom?” the casting director asked in a faint, trembly voice.

“For . . .for the island of Barra, for Scotland,” I said. “The lush colours here will surpass even the glowing shades of the west of Galway where John Ford filmed his classic The Quiet Man, which I venture to describe as a kind of Hibernian Taming of the Shrew. Quite Shakespearian, don’t you think? Of course big Marion Morrison (the birth name of John Wayne) and Maureen O’Hara finally get married, and, goodness, wasn’t that long fight scene between Wayne and Victor McLaglen absolutely thrilling?”

Your smooth patter, a Thormoid, has caused the lady to relax completely. She is now sprawled across the scarred table, her cheek pressed against the wood with her eyes tight shut.

“Of course, it’s all about the chemistry between your leading actors, isn’t it,” I continued, hardly taking a breath. “I thought Humph (yes, I called Humphrey Bogart by his abbreviated forename) and Kate (Hepburn) were one of cinema’s most attractive couples.”

The lady was opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish,  but no sounds emerged. I was greatly encouraged.

“Oh, I nearly forgot to mention From Here to Eternity,” I continued with scarcely a break. “I’d read James’s novel while I was still in high school and wasn’t disappointed with director Fred Zinneman’s follow-up to High Noon. The classic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing in the surf is, in my humble opinion, the most romantic scene ever filmed.” The casting director’s shoulders were heaving beneath the oilskin outer garment. I reckoned my work here was done. I rose and silently tiptoed to the door. Before leaving the snug I turned to say my farewell.

CASTING DIRECTOR

“Well, Roddy,” I said. “I’m convinced that I am – er, I mean, we are – just what the film industry has been waiting for. Listen, when are you heading home for the Easter break?”

“Bus to Oban, tea-time on Sunday. Midnight sailing from Oban. Castlebay, first thing Monday morning.”

Mìorbhaileach, ille, Marvellous,” I gushed as I rubbed my hands together. “I’m coming with you. I’ve got a good feeling about this. I think the director – what’s his name again? Oh, yes, Michael Relph – this guy is going to need me . . . I mean, he’s going to need the pair of us on this film.”

Ma dh’fhaoidte, Perhaps,” Roddy said doubtfully as we entered the pub.

A week later I was seated on a bench seat in a kind of airy little snug leading off the public bar of the Castlebay Hotel. Before me, on a cigarette scarred table stood a half-full glass of whisky, the purchase of which ten minutes earlier had left me with about two pounds to last me for the rest of my week’s holiday. I stared at the little piles of coins I had assembled in an attempt to find out my current financial worth. I kept stacking them repeatedly – pennies, sixpences, shillings, florins and half crowns and moving the little piles around the table with the vacant intensity of someone in a Locked Ward. The door behind me opened and a sheet of rain driven on a keen south-westerly wind drenched the interior of the snug. A middle-aged lady wearing stout brogues and oilskin top and trousers entered. She rounded the table smartly and extended her gloved hand in greeting. Her eye shadow had run in the rainstorm outside and had given her face a vaguely vampirish aspect. This was the casting director and the one I’d have to convince that my presence on Rockets Galore was a precondition of international success.

“Oh (Ee-ow), daahlin,” she gushed, Ai’m so sorry to have kept you waiting. We’ve had a bit of a thing on the set today.”

“A thing?”

“Some of the natives . . .I mean, the sailors (sailaahs) are getting restless,” she explained. “They claim that they need to be drinking real spirits, not cold tea, in the ‘wake’ scene in order to enter into the . . .er, spirit of things. You understand?”

“Perfectly, madam.”

What’s the matter with these English people? Haven’t they heard about ‘method’ acting? Can they be unaware of Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront?

“Name?” she barked as she unscrewed the top of a Mont Blanc pen and opened a leather-bound notebook.

“Norman Hector MacKinnon Maclean.”

“Age?”

“Twenty.”

“Present employment?”

“Oh, I don’t work.”

The casting director stopped writing, nervously adjusted her pince-nez with a buff-coloured glove, and peered at me through shiny little raisin eyes. “How do you support yourself?” she asked.

“Bursaries.”

“What?” This was the grudging, distrustful type of middle-aged crone whom you least want the mother to turn out to be when you visit a girl’s house for the first time to take her to a school dance or something.

“I go to university.”

That’s telling her, boy. Just watch her attitude change now.

“What are you reading?”

That’s more like it. Engulf her with detail, Norrie. Impress her with the breadth and depth of your knowledge.

“Almost anything I can get my hands on, ma’m.”

“No, no, no – you don’t understand . . .” She shook her head from side to side while furrowing her brows, in a feeble attempt to impersonate comprehension.

ROCKETS GALORE

It all started with a throwaway question posed by Roddy Campbell (Ruairidh Pheadair Ròraidh) as we strolled towards our favourite watering hole, the Chancellor, on Byres Road. This was after an end of second term class examination at the degree factory in Gilmorehill in the spring of 1957.

“De mar a chòrdadh e riut, a Thormoid, a bhith ann am film, How do you fancy being in a film, Norman?” Roddy said.

Yes, yes, yes. At the very least, Karma exists.

“I don’t know, Roddy,” I said, feigning nonchalance. “It would depend on what the film was about, which territory it was to be filmed in, and obviously, how attractive the leading lady playing opposite me was.”

“Well, her name is Jeannie Carson and though I haven’t cast an eye on her myself, Calum MacAulay, the brother of ‘Gruagach Og an Fhuilt Bhàin’, described the actress as a ‘piseag ghrànta’, or ‘ugly kitten’.”

(Gruagach Og an Fhuilt Bhàin’ is he title of a popular love song composed by Donald Macdonald, Dòmhnall Ailean Dhòmhnaill na Ban-fhighiche, of Daliburgh, South Uist. The bard’s inspiration was a famed beauty on Barra called Mòr Bhàn or Fair Marion MacAulay.)

“They’ve already chosen the male lead,” Roddy continued. He’s called Donald Sinden. Oh, and they’re shooting the film on Barra.”

“Never heard of either of them,” I responded sniffily. “Why Barra?”

“It’s a sequel to Whisky Galore and many of the characters have been carried over from the earlier film. The film was a big hit in the US and the audiences over there just loved the Barra scenery.”

(Whisky Galore, a film based on the true story of how the SS Politician ran aground between Barra and Eriskay, was a pleasant entertainment telling the story of how islanders tried to plunder 50,00 cases of whisky from the stranded ship. The director was Alexander Mackendrick, the writer, the Yorkshireman Compton Mackenzie (novel and screenplay) and the stars were Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood and Catherine Lacey.)

“What’s this new film about?” I enquired, careful not to show much enthusiasm

“As far as my sister Mary knows – she’s at home just now and gets all the gossip on the island – the plot is based on a Compton Mackenzie work called Rockets Galore. The Director is called Michael Relph.”

“He’s obviously riding on the coat-tails of the Whisky film, no?”

“Suppose so,” Roddy said. “The music is the responsibility of Cedric Thorpe Davie.”

“From that hotbed of Celtic music . . .Cheltenham . . . right?”

“Cò aig’ tha brath, Who knows?”

“What else has Mary told you about this . . .er, Rockets thing?”

“You might find the stuff about the person who wrote the ‘adaptation’ intriguing.”

“How’s that?”

“Her name is Monja Danischewsky.”

“What?”

“The scriptwriter is somebody called Monja Danischewsky.”

“Co leis i, Who begat her?”

“Dunno. Chan ann à Barraigh a tha i, She’s not from Barra.”

“Nice work, Sherlock. I’d never have guessed,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “Why do you think I’d be interested in getting involved in this sgudal, rubbish?”

“The money.”

“What money?”

“The money they’re handing out to extras.”

“How much?” I enquired languidly.

“Mac Phop, Alex Macneil, from Castlebay and ‘Dixie’ from Brevig are getting seventy pounds every day they turn up as extras.”

“Hold on, Roddy,” I blurted out. “These guys are in the merchant navy, aren’t they?”

“That’s correct.”

“And they’re getting paid seventy pounds a day while they’re home on leave?”

“Yeah.”

“How much more would they be willing to pay an undergraduate . . .er, I mean, two undergraduates?”

(In 1957 fewer than 4% of 18-24 year olds attended university, and those of us lucky enough to gain admission to one of the older Scottish universities or even to Glasgow Tech. thought we were pretty hot stuff indeed.)

“I wouldn’t like to speculate, a Thormoid.”

Always the conservative: that’s our Roddy. What a fearty!

PIPER PAYS

I make off with my hands covering my crotch like a defending football player at a free kick. I have to duck down and creep like an army commando past the desk at Reception so that the dark girl doesn’t see me. I stomp up the stairs and make it to my room. I lie down with my head buzzing around the word Imbécil.

What time is it? Time has stopped for me. I stagger as I get out of bed and make my way to the toilet. All I have to do is slip the noose, suitably fortified beforehand of course. Wait. What to wear? A terry cotton dressing gown in black and blue stripes is hanging on a hook behind the door. I quickly throw it over a pair of boxer shorts and a pink top. The lacing paratrooper boots will have to do, for now.

Suitably casual behaviour is called for, wild eyes darting hither and thither as I descend the short staircase towards Reception. There is no way to explain the terror I feel as I lurch up to the desk at Reception. The dark girl is not there. A door opens to the right of the counter and the person who enters is Armando.

“BUENOS DIAS, SENOR,” he bellows.

I almost collapse at the foot of the counter. Every cell in my brain and my body sags. No! I think. I must be hallucinating. This cocky little bantam whose black curly hair is a manadh, vision.

“SENOR! WAIT!”

“¿Que?” I lowered my head, too tired to resist.

“Debiste comprar, senor,” he says, shrugging.

All my well-rehearsed phrases fall apart under the man’s stony glare.

I reach into my wallet and take out a UK Driving Licence and the cheque book . . .Si, senor . . . acqui tiene mi plata . . . vale, vale . . . Haga el favor de traerme una cerveza . .. .”

Armando doesn’t blink. He tears out cheque after cheque, has me sign them, all the while mumbling numbers in Spanish.

“Quaranta . . . Dos cientos . . .Cuatro mil . . Ochocientos . . . Mil quinientos . . . Total: Dos mil setecientos colones.”

“Yes! Okay!” I shout. “Dame los cheques.” I lunge backwards with my book and leave La Pensión Bellavista with my dressing gown flapping at my calves and my heavy boots clacking on the wooden steps leading to the sandy path. I hitch my travel pack up onto one shoulder and hear the distinct sound of liquid sloshing around in a bottle. This is too much to absorb all a once. From freedom to prison to freedom once again. In full view of the ladies hurrying to market and a pack of barefoot boys in shorts playing football on the beach,  I haul the pint of Cuervo from the bag and take a massive swig. I hunker down on the sandy path, carefully adjusting the dressing gown, and fire up a cigarette. This will not be a happy run. The rum is beginning to kick in. I’m slowly getting the zombie feeling: three weeks of excess and an empty adrenaline tank will put anybody on their tòn. How much longer can I last?

There is really no choice. I shall have to press on and run the gauntlet. I shall go through all the bureaucratic gibberish at flight desks and emigration booths, get to Windsor, Ontario, borrow money from my cousin, Donald MacKinnon, secure a plane ticket for a plane to Scotland, all of it strength-sapping and totally debilitating, but it has to be done.

At the forefront of my consciousness I retain the Gaelic proverb: Ged is fad a-muigh Barraigh, ruigear e, Though Barra is far off, it can be reached.

JET-SKI

I follow Armando’s instructions carefully. I grip the handles of the jet-ski with both hands. He supports my trailing legs with one hand in the region of my shins. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, I edge away from the shore as I twist the throttle the smallest number of degrees towards me. The entire length of my body, from neck to toes, is afloat on the waves. My anxiety levels are rising slightly as I realize that my bulky clothing has quickly become saturated and that it is all I can do to crane my head upwards while the rest of me is settling deeper in the water.

“Arriba!” comes the shout from the shore.

I twist the throttle, and the 15HP engine attached to the base of this aquatic vacuum cleaner bursts into life. Dia gam shàbhaladh, God save me! I am being dragged out into the Pacific Ocean in the general direction of Japan. As this infernal machine is dragging me over the waves at speed I recall Armando’s casual instruction.

“Joost pull you’self oop.”

Just pull myself up?

Arnold Schwartschenegger couldn’t do that. Not at the speed I am traveling at.

With arms outstretched, I lower my head until my face is no more than six inches above the sea and abandon myself to being towed to Japan. My waterlogged clothing? I’ve no idea where my clothing is. Both Berghaus jackets, waterproof trousers and tops have been stripped from my body by the force of the oncoming waves. Even the all-in-one long johns are being peeled away from my body as I fervently pray for deliverance. Except for the lacing boots, all my clothing will be somewhere behind me in the foaming wake. All anyone can see from the shore is a little white behind bobbing up and down on the waves. Sharks, if there are sharks in these waters, will surely be in a frenzy. ‘Teuchter tòn for supper’ is the message they will have communicated in shark-speak to one another as they speed towards their defenseless prey.

Far behind me I hear Armando roaring. “ALARMA ROJA! ALARMA ROJA!”

Fatigue and panic combine to convince my inebriated brain that I must at all costs hang on to handlebars. In some impenetrable way my right hand twitches to push the throttle away from me. The engine slowly dies, and I end up drifting to a halt with my head partially submerged. Without forward momentum the machine is sinking and – the horror of it all! – it is pulling me down to the depths with it. Aaaaaargh! Sea water is pouring through my open mouth. This is worse than the Rich Ambrosia incident. Blood vessels are pounding me from the inside. Dull pain, from temple to temple, fills my entire body. I experience agony like one of my father’s steel splicing pins is being stabbed through my lungs . . .and then it’s over.

I release my grip on the handlebars and the jet-ski spirals gently downwards while I drift in slow motion towards the surface. Half dead with a last despairing kick of my legs, I force my head into the blessed air of Playa del Coco. Gulping and coughing up gouts of sea water, I tread water and await the arrival of a rubber rib which is veering in my direction from the shore. A rope is thrown and I grab it. I am being towed towards the shore where I dimly perceive Armando jumping up and down.

Strong arms belonging to two of Armando’s henchmen haul me up from the surf and I stand shivering, naked but for my paratrooper boots, before the wrath of the irate proprietor who has just witnessed the loss of his livelihood.

“¡Estábas en una situación muy peligroso, imbécil!”

“Voy a pagar, señor Armando.”

My offer to pay restitution does little to diminish his anger.

“¡Idiota! Idiota! Todo lo que usted es bueno para es borrachar!”

I am only too aware that all that I am good for is getting drunk. I break down and start to cry.

“Lo siento seriamente, Armando.”

“¡Sal!”

ARMANDO

I leave and go directly to the beach. There is no snow. A sinking sun shines on the palm fringed sandy cove and the ambient temperature is easily 30 Celsius. There is a coating of perspiration covering my entire body. I wish I hadn’t been so drunk when I first squinted at what I thought was a window. It was of course the screen of the television set I’d left on when I collapsed into bed earlier. I stride towards a male figure who is standing waving a long pole with a flag attached about a hundred yards away along the beach. I remove my hands from my pockets and arch my back so that I imagine my shoulder blades are almost touching. This is my posture as I approach the man. He is white, about forty-five, short and wide with a weather-beaten face. As I get nearer he doubles up. “Hgggg,” he chortles, obviously finding my dress code highly amusing. He himself is dressed in khaki shorts, the same t-shirt as the receptionist wore, and has deck shoes on his feet. The banner at the end of the pole he is waving from side to side reads: ARMANDO JET-SKIS.

I come to a halt twelve yards in front of him. Between ripples of his flag I see he’s really getting into laughing at me. I catch glimpses of his open mouth, his front top teeth a row of gold shingles, like a zipper in his mouth, as loud guffaws come up from his belly. He indicates a jet ski lying on a tarpaulin behind him. A jet ski is a kind of upright carpet cleaner with handlebars. This one has a metal-enclosed pod, encasing some kind of engine I suppose, jutting out from the base of the upright structure. Now, I like everything about motorized racing – motor cycles, old bangers with souped -up innards, I’ve tried them all at one time or another. The booze I’ve recently scoffed has me flying. I can imagine the scene: I’m racing across the bay on my jet-ski, one hand on the throttle, the other with clenched fist pumping in triumph. Yeah, I’ll probably have to take a bow when I make it back to the beach, and then, Bam! It’s Champagne ‘skooshing’ time.

“Hola,” I say, not smiling. I really have to stop doing this. I’m talking about the deer-in-the-headlights state I go into whenever I’m confronted by a Spanish speaking person or even an actual deer.

“¿De donde eres, caballero, Where are you from, sir?

“Soy de Escocia.”

“¿Hablan Ingles en Escocia?

“Naturalamente.

“You like to water-ski?”

“Maybe.”

“No es difficil para usted, señor, It’s not difficult for someone like you, sir.

“What do I have to do?

“Joost hold the handlebars and lie on your estómago behind the jet-ski.”

“And?”

“Geev eet a leetle throttle. Allow eet to draaag you out very slowly from the shallows eento deeper water.”

“What then?” I ask.

“When eet has draaagged you out eento the deeper water, geev eet full throttle. Let eet draaaag you over the waves,” he drawls, flapping his hand, palm downwards, to indicate how a prone body may be dragged through the wave

“What happens then?”

“When eet ees draaaagging you over the waves . . .” He pauses for dramatic effect. “Joost pull you’self oop.”

How much of what follows is attributable to a residual belief within me that, as the man, boy really, who had knocked out Malky Cairns with one punch, I am indestructible, and how much to habitual drunkenness, is probably a question I’ll never resolve.