TALK IT LIKE TARZAN

Although I’ve always prided myself on my ability to get females to listen to my patter, it is only when I attempt to turn up the corners of my lips in a welcoming smile that it occurs to me that I don’t know what to say to this glamorous vision.

“’l don’t mean to presume . . .” I make a gesture with my hand casually – cool – and say, “Well, why don’t you take the weight off your . . .legs?” No sooner do I mention the divine appendages than I don’t know what to say next.

“I may sit beside you nude?” comes from the sensual mouth above me.

What am I hearing? Is this Asian girl proposing to do a striptease before sitting in the reclining chair next to mine?

It takes me about three seconds to realise that ‘nude’ is in the vocative case and the question is a simple request directed at me. She points a forefinger at my pallid bare thigh, which protrudes from the ragged hem of my dressing gown. In my late seventies the circumference of my thighs is about the same as that of my calves.

“Of course,” I gush, sweeping a newspaper and an empty crisp packet from an adjacent seat. “Please, I want you to . . . recline . . . I mean, relax next to me. The world was made for you alone . . .you’re most welcome.”

“You I t’ank,” she says.

As an aficionado of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I immediately twig that we are communicating in Tarzan language.

“What name for you?” I ask. Our vessel has just left the comparatively sheltered waters of the Sound of Mull and now is being buffeted by very heavy waves in the Southern Minch. Indeed, for the month of May recent weather in Scotland has been most unseasonal.

“Tashi Daleq” – she pronounces it Ta-shee Daal-ek – “name for me.”

“How you are?” I demand, believing nothing can challenge my increasing confidence in this dialect. I shake her hand and receive a little extra squeeze before we disengage. I fleetingly register that for such a slip of a girls she has some mitt on her.

“First is last,” is the unintelligible reply.

I hypothesize that in her native language – Pashtun? Tagalog? – this is the locution employed to indicate complete satisfaction with current conditions.

“What name for you?” she asks.

“Norman is name for me.”

“Noh-maan,” she repeats slowly. “I call you ‘Nude Man’ because yo’ flesh is bare.” Her index finger points to my naked peely-wally legs poking out of my old.bobbly dressing gown. She shrieks: “Nude!” and slaps her bejewelled fingers over her eyes and laughs uncontrollably. “You’ legs hurt my eyes.”

“You going to Lochboisdale?” I ask.

“No, to bar I go soon.”

This reply is promising. It occurs to me that if she intends to go next door to the Lounge Bar I may take the opportunity to sneak a double-double or two to sustain me for the remainder of the long voyage.

“Look . . . er, Tashi,” I say, handing her a twenty pound note from the crumpled heap of bamknotes I’ve taken from my pocket. “When you get to the bar, get me whisky – a lot of whisky. You understand?”

She becomes rather grave. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “I no’ goin’ get whisky. I go to island of Barr.”

“Oh, you go to Barra?”

“Yes, I tell you before.”

“Business or pleasure?”

“Beezness, of course,” she replies. She doesn’t seem to find the alternative worth considering. Only a half-naked old man would imagine that any degree of pleasure could be found on a rock in the North-east Atlantic.

“What kind beezness?’ I press. The diction adjustment is becoming contagious.

“Yes, darlin’” says the Asian beauty.

I wait for amplification but no explanation comes. In the ensuing silence despite myself my eyes close and for a brief period I am out the game.

OBSERVATION LOUNGE

I wrestle open an extremely heavy fire door and, breathless, enter the Observation Lounge. This comprises ten or maybe a dozen rows of reclining lather chairs, around five deep. Almost every seat is taken. What are all these people doing crowded in the Observation Lounge rather than being dispersed between the Cafeteria, the Shop, or the Lounge Bar? Has my Creator created this gauntlet specifically to make Norman Hector MacKinnon Maclean suffer? Why are there so many ET eyes swivelling in my direction? I shuffle my way forward, holding the flap of my tatty dressing gown shut and sliding my torn green paper slippers so as not to reveal too much pallid flesh. There are many holidaymakers in the audience, but there are also many young men from Barra or South Uist, identifiable by the green and white-hooped football tops that indicate that they are supporters of Glasgow Celtic. They all wear trainers. It seems to me that all males under the age of forty on the islands have no idea what shoe polish is. “Sin thu, Thormoid, Yeah, Norman,” says one of the hoops supporters, a can of lager in his fist. “An ann a’ gabhail na grèine a-rithis a bha thu, Have you been out sunbathing again?” All his pals begin laughing at the finesse of their leader’s sarcasm. I am humiliated and ashamed. Don’t lock eyes with any of them. Act as if they do not exist. Still clutching the flaps of the dressing gown at the waist I shuffle forward until I come to the last row. At the far end two middle-aged men, shaven headed and wearing camouflage trousers and windbreakers sit companionably, the fingers of right and left hands interlocking in mutual comfort and support. There are three vacant chairs to my immediate left. I slump gratefully into the middle high-backed chair, which has a view, not of the Minch, but of a blank bulkhead of perforated aluminium. I try to arrange my bare legs in such a way that only my ill-defined pale calves are on view. The hem of the sodden gown is irredeemably far up above my knee. Since, at the age of seventy-two, my lower limbs, from knee to ankle, have roughly the same diameter, I am painfully conscious that this is not a good look.

Hey! Who is this beautiful female creature standing above me in the aisle? She has quite a head of raven black hair, trimmed to just above her caramel brown shoulders. She has a lean face with glistening cliff-top cheekbones, a broad nub of a nose, and upper and lower lips adorned by smooth, dark lipstick. She wears a smooth teal silk peasant blouse over a very short mustard coloured skirt.   Revealed are the naked brown curves of thighs and calves supported by ankle strapped shoes that are little more than insoles on pencils. It strikes me that, as the old Gaelic expression has it, ‘eadar Hiort is Peairt, between St Kilda and Perth’, this model-on-a-runway woman and old Norman Hector are the only human beings, among all the other earth people, who are either sexy enough or stupid enough to be gadding about bare legged. Funny how with us there is no contest. The woman is the sexy one. She is in her late twenties or early thirties and smiles down at me in a cool way. Her glistening white teeth are in contrast to her tawny cheeks. There is a decided Asian cast to her mischievous eyes . . .sizzling . . . aflame . . . with some kind of inner fire. There isn’t a male in the Observation Lounge who can tear his eyes away from this exotic creature, except perhaps for the two guys at the far end of the row who may well be playing for the other team.

THREE WHISKIES

Now, I am not suggesting there was any jiggery-pokery on the part of Robbie Fraser whenever he uttered the words ‘on the budget.’ I do confess to feeling a stab of anxiety when I imagined that any increase in expenditure in the budget might result in a diminution of my fee for the gig. All I know is that in March Karen Smyth lodged a thousand pounds with Glasgow Sheriff Court to pay for a bill I owed GHA. Was that it? Had I been paid in full already?

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo – in which direction do I go? I wheel away from the Honda and break into a clumsy half-gallop back towards Neil Iain Maclean’s Royal Hotel just beyond the arch.

“Don’t you dare go to the pub, Norman,” Marion shouts as she dismounts from the back seat of our vehicle. “Robbie and I are coming with you.”

The three of us more or less clatter into the lounge bar at the same time, to the open-mouthed astonishment of the young barman who is reading a newspaper behind the counter. We present a strange vision. One cool dude with four-day growth on pale chops, one female d’une âge certaine with cheeks crimson with anger, and a doubled up freak in a wet dressing gown, with exposed pale legs and torn green slippers on his feet.

“Three whiskies,” I gasp. “And what will you guys have? Robbie? Marion?”

I draw a veil over what followed. I fuzzily remember a prolonged drinking session during which I regaled the company – increased by the presence of several jolly locals who had somehow heard of the freak show in the pub – with Gaelic songs and half remembered Glasgow street chants:

‘Olaibh i buileach, tha tuilleadh san stòp, Drink it all up, there’s more in the stoup,

Deoch slàinte nam Muileach len cruinneagan bòidheach, Here’s Good Health to the natives of Mull with their beautiful maidens,

Olaibh i buileach, tha tuilleadh san stòp, Drink it all up, there’s more in the stoup,

Am Muile nan garbh-bheann tha fiadh as a’ gharbhlaich, In Mull of the high bens, deer dwell in the rugged regions,

Tha gobhair is meanbh-chrodh is sealgair an eòin ann, Goats and small cattle and fowlers are there,

Olaibh i buileach, tha tuilleadh san stòp, Drink it all up, there’s more in the stoup,

Dh’òlainn i, phàighinn i, thogainn an àird i, I would drink it, pay for it and raise it up,

Air cloinn-nighean an t-Sàilein ‘s gach àite rim eòlas, To honour the girls of Salen and every place I know,

Olaibh i buileach, tha tuilleadh san stòp, Drink it all up, there’s more in the stoup,

‘S e bhith sealltainn nad aodann ‘s do ghruaidh mar na caoran, It’s while gazing at your face, with your cheeks like rowan berries,

‘S mi smaoineachadh daonnan air faoineas na h-òige, I think of the foolishness of youth,

Olaibh i buileach, tha tuilleadh san stòp, Drink it all up, there’s more in the stoup,’

Again, the ballad of the foreign sailor who landed in Govan:

‘The first time I struck Govan,

The first time that I reached that shore,

I went down to the smoky alleys,

Trying to find a welcome door.’

Needless to tell, the poor victim falls for a pretty young girl, and accompanies her to her lodgings. There he is drugged, robbed and thrown out into the gutter.

There was certainly a hot time in old Inverary town that Sunday afternoon. A pupil of ‘Curly’ MacKay arrived with his accordion, and John the driver and cameraman joined the session. Somehow Marion and Robbie got me back into the passenger seat of the Honda and I closed my eyes for the last lap of the journey to Oban. Suffice it to say that the deep dream of peace compounded of equal parts alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs fortified me, or at least anaesthetised what I call my mind, for the horrors of what I was to encounter on the ferry. Yes, it was on the voyage between Oban and Castlebay, Barra, that I met the Mysterious Asian Beauty.

THE BUDGET

A man in the grip of his passion will not be thwarted. John’s response to my inability to explain myself is a single “Hmmmh,” whereupon he continues to harangue me in TV speak: “The shinty stick or golf club or whatever weapon Robbie decides to use will be resting on your right shoulder. Got it?”

“Uh-huh.”

“But what the viewer will see is you bringing the club down and across your body to smash into the giant container of whisky, shattering it into hundreds of pieces, okay?”

“Uh-huh,” I grunt indistinctly. I try to smile to indicate that I now realise that the word Jeroboam has nothing to do with the ancient Israelites.

“But that’s not how we’re going to film the sequence, is it?”

“Shuppose not.”

“Definitely not,” chirps John. “What we’ll do is have the head of the club resting on the side of the full massive container, the jeroboam – know what I mean?.

Unfortunately, I do, although the knowledge comes far too late.

“And,” John continues excitedly, “ I’ll film you rapidly drawing both arms backwards and upwards until the club is resting on your shoulder. Get it?”

I remain silent. John doesn’t notice and continues, laughing: “You see, ,Norman, I’m going to film in . . . reverse.”

“Reverse,” I repeat, as though I understand his gobbledegook.

“Yeah,” John says in a cheery, friendly voice. “Neat trick, humh?”

I turn my head to the passenger window. As I gaze at the dark waters of Loch Fyne I close my eyes and wish I could wake up gorked out in a wee white hospital bed somewhere. Until we reach Inveraray, I swallow yawn after yawn in strangulating gulps. Feeling heavy and dazed, I manage to tumble out of the cab about fifty yards beyond the arch on the road to Loch Awe. I am huddled against the boundary wall of either the Police or Fire Station sucking on my last cigarette when I see Robbie emerging from the back offside door and making his way toward the store on his side of the road. I shout to him to get me cigarettes.

When he returns I am waiting in the rain beside the front passenger door. “Here,” Robbie says, extending a packet of Benson and Hedges. “Let me give you some money,” he adds. “This’ll get you a meal on the ferry . . . and stuff.” He pulls out a bundle of paper money – twenties and tens – from his wallet and holds it out to me. “It’s on the budget,” he offers by way of explanation.

I crumple the money in my hand and stuff it into my dressing gown pocket. I don’t count it. I merely view it as another murky financial transaction in the long process of filming Tormod.

The phrase ‘on the budget’ I have heard on numerous occasions since we started to film this never-ending epic. In flash restaurants in Glasgow and Oban and in humble bodegas in Spain this was the jaunty phrase Robbie employed to justify expenditure on food and drink. An unpleasant sensation, not yet a thought, used to spread through my innards. I really ought to have enquired about the amount of money Belle Allée were investing in this project, and, more importantly, what was my share of it. For the first and only time in my long history of participation in television programming I hadn’t asked for a contract before the cameras began to roll. At the back end of 2008 I was so short of money that when Robbie came to me with the proposal that he be allowed to film a documentary about my life and sordid times I entered into a fuzzy agreement without taking the time to kick the tires.

For now, it was a case of taking a deep breath, gritting my teeth and getting through the unpleasant business of completing Robbie’s documentary. As we used to say in Govan when I was a lad whenever an initially tedious procedure had to be followed, ‘Rise, horse, and you’ll get grass.’ The problem was that maybe I had already received all the grass I was due.

PAIN AHEAD

“Through the use of filters we’ll make it appear you’re going to be submerged in the icy water of the South Ford,” John announces triumphantly.

I have little interest the anatomy of television and stop listening. Indeed, anything to do with electricity or electricity-powered gadgets rings alarm bells for me. I must have been absent from my Physics class the day old Dr Hughes introduced the subject. I’ve never even seen this stuff called electricity. All I know is that it runs down walls. It is one of the many tiny miracles upon whose magic I prefer never to look.

There is no way, however, this young man who has discovered his passion in life and actually gets paid for indulging it is going to stop. My eyes drop shut..

“. . . baseball bat?” asks John.

“Wha’?”

“Can you swing a baseball bat?”

I shake my head slowly from side to side. This makes me feel nauseous.

“What about a golf club? You ever use a driver on a golf course?”

I don’t want to shake my head again. “One time,” I gasp.

John extends his open palm towards me in a high-five gesture. “Wicked!” he bawls. “The smashing of the Jeroboam will be a skoosh, then.”

I try to guess what the ‘Smashing of the Jeroboam’ entails. It’s associated; I think, with an errant tribe in the Old Testament – something to do with a battle the Israelites fought perhaps in the land of Canaan. My head is beginning to hurt already.

“. . . reverse,” finishes with pride in his voice.

“Reverse?” I say in the back of my throat.

“Yes,” John says adding a brittle laugh so I will think we’re going to have fum, fun, fun on this shoot.

I’m convinced it will be pain, pain, pain.

Dia bhith timcheall orm, God be round about me! These insane people are trying to replicate an Old Testament battle scene in the Middle East. I flash on Joshua and Jericho for a split second. Do they intend to dress me in flowing white robes and have me slowly emerge from behind a sand-dune in Hosta? Will they have me made up to look like Lawrence of Arabia? Will I be mounted on a white stallion or even a camel? Where will they get camels from? What a tool (pace, Peter O’Toole) I’ll look as I sway on the back of a black ram as we stumble forward to scourge idolatrous pagans from Canaan! No, I’ve got to dissuade John to abandon this idiotic enterprise by pointing out insuperable difficulties in the way of realising his mission. I focus on the problem of finding camels in Càirinis.

“Jush wanna shay – wanna shay shay . . .”

I blank out, then quickly recover. “Jush wanna shay . . . where’sh the caam-elsh?”

“What are you trying to say, Norman?”

By the time I realise how garbled my speech must sound, I see the numb, torpid expression on John’s face and I crash and burn. “Nuh-nuh- nuh – nothing,” I trail off feebly.

A man in the grip of his passion will not be thwarted. John’s response to my inability to explain myself is a single “Hmmmh,” whereupon he continues to harangue me in TV speak: “The shinty stick or golf club or whatever weapon Robbie decides to use will be resting on your right shoulder. Got it?”

“Uh-huh.”

“But what the viewer will see is you bringing the club down and across your body to smash into the giant container of whisky, shattering it into hundreds of pieces, okay?”

“Uh-huh,” I grunt indistinctly. I try to smile to indicate that I now realise that the word Jeroboam has nothing to do with the ancient Israelites.

BAFTA

“Baaaaaff-ta! Baaaaff-ta!” yodels John, as he executes a sharp right hand turn at the south end of Helen Street in Craigton to join the off-ramp leading to the M8 Motorway.

“You think so, John?” Marion says.

“A tap-in, Marion,” John sings out, swivelling his head to the left, and grinning.

“Really?”

John raises the index and middle fingers of his left hand to the side of his nose and slings the words out the corner of his mouth and back over his shoulder to make sure that both Marion and, more importantly, Robbie hear them: “Two-to-one shot, folks. Odds On, know what I mean?”

A female voice behind me says, “Ohmygod . . . that’s awesome . . . Robbie!”

I look back despite myself. Robbie is silent, with his upper teeth showing in a kind of a grin. He clears his throat loudly. The car goes quiet. I have the impression he is telling John and Marion not to take that subject any farther , although just what the subject – ‘Baaaaaff-ta’ – is, I haven’t a clue

We float along the Motorway heading for the Erskine Bridge, but somehow we stop at a Dobie’s Garden Centre on the way. As I sit smoking a cigarette seated at a wooden table outdoors, the other four enter the shop. Before they go in for coffee Lena turns and hands me a couple of hexagonal, grey coloured pills and a bottle of water. I don’t even ask her what they are. I’m holding the first pill between the fingers of both hands like an as-yet-undetonated explosive device. “Slàinte mhòr, a nighean, Good health, girl,” I say as I pop the pill into my mouth and take a sip of water.

Initially I feel like I have been kicked in the stomach – my attempt at levity is just lying there, dying. Within five minutes I begin to feel like a . . . I search my head, but find nothing – I don’t know what I am feeling.

A little warning signal works its way up through my imminent high. For a fleeting moment it becomes clear that I am riding, three quarters in the bag, in a crossover recreational vehicle on my way to South Uist. I have done this on a couple of occasions earlier in the year – long weekends, five-night sojourns in Marion’s croft in Cill Amhlaigh – and these were not fun times. Why are Belle Allée Productions putting so much pressure on Robbie to get the documentary Tormod in the can? The moment of realization looms up like the bonnet of one of the massive timber lorries, which intermittently pass us going in the opposite direction. The folk in Belle Allée, particularly Karen Smyth, a very able CEO, think I am already in the bosom of Death. They have concluded that unless they resort to self-help, the old brain-waves on the monitor by my bedside in the ‘Sufferin General’ are going to go flat. In their opinion, I haven’t long to go before I meet the bodach, old man, with the scythe.

The conclusion that I am but one step away from Death’s door is startling enough for me to attempt to converse with John. He is talking enthusiastically about some of the scenes he hopes to shoot during the coming week. I watch his lips move but hear only fragments of his excited monologue.

.. . . “yeah, the drowning scene will be epic, Norman. You remember last February in the Skippinish Ceilidh House in Oban when we filmed you with your back to the counter and there were glass shelves on the gantry above your head supporting ranks of liquor bottles lit from below as if they were onstage, remember? . . . yeah, we filmed you knocking back glass after glass of liqueurs in a frenzy, remember?”

“Ummmm.”

“We’ll cut to a scene of you drifting face down in a pool of whisky. It’ll be shot in the Secondary School swimming pool in Benbecula, of course. Brilliant idea, eh?”

Rubbish idea, I think. It’ll take hours to film, and will fill the screen for all of three seconds.

CROSSED WIRES

I gave up trying to chew gum and walk at the same time a long time ago. Dh’fhairtlich e orm riamh dà rud a dhèanamh còmhla, I’ve never been able to accomplish two tasks simultaneously.

“Look, Robbie,, I said reasonably, “I’m not leaving this vehicle.”

“What about clothes?” Robbie asks.

I ignore him and turn to John.

“I’m not agreeing with this nonsense, John,” I say grimly, waving the pad in his face.

“Did you call me ‘John’?” Robbie squeals over the phone. “You’ve got to wear clothes.”

“No, Robbie, I mean just a moment . . . John, what happened to ‘Enjoy and use it’ and ‘You enjoy your health?’”

“What?” says John, mystified?

“Back up, Norman,” Robbie pipes up. “I can’t understand you.”

I extend the pad in my left hand and stab at it with my right forefinger.

“This is insane,” I shriek.

“Hold it,” Robbie commands. I am only too pleased to do as he says. “Which one of us is insane?” Robbie asks with a degree of indignation in his voice.

“Everybody!” I blurt out. “Mainly Marion with this mad scheme to abduct me from the safety of the hospital where I’m supposed to be in detox.”

“But surely you know I haven’t finished shooting yet,” Robbie says.

“Your problem,” I assert smugly.

“No, Norman,” Robbie says. “You’re the problem.”

“No, Robbie,” I insist. “Marion has only come up with this lunatic scheme to score brownie points with you.” B’ e ‘m balach an gaol, Love is truly wonderful.”

I want to pause for a short digression here. In the summer of 2016 Marion paid me a visit here in Baymore. She insisted that her part in the so-called abduction was not motivated by a desire to help Robbie finish his documentary. All she wanted to do was extricate me from the coven of comic singers, thieves, scam artists and addicts who were attached to me at a bad time in my life. I believe her.

Robbie and I resume our rather disjointed dialogue.

”Excuse me a second, Robbie.”

I crouch down in an attempt to turn on the dashboard radio in order to drown out Robbie’s questions. John puts his head down to adjust the switches. Our heads momentarily collide. “Sorry,” I blurt out.

“Did you say ‘Sorry’?” Robbie says. “I should think you should be sorry. You failed to follow instructions.”

“Sorry, Robbie, I was talking to someone else.”

“Sorry?” Robbie repeats. He is obviously still baffled.

“If you don’t mind, Robbie, I’m finding it hard to pay attention to you and scan this shooting script at the same time.”

“Come on up to the ward,” Robbie pleads. I’ll cover all the eventualities and phantom issues that may be troubling you.”

I stop thinking. My brain is befogged. I bring the phone closer to my mouth and take a deep breath.

“Shut up!” I hear myself shouting. rather over-emphatically “If you want to finish this documentary, you’ll come down here immediately!”

A minute goes by in the silent interior of the Honda. Marion emerges from the double electronic sliding doors followed by Robbie lugging a huge suitcase. Without a word he deposits it behind the back seat of the car along with camera cases, mysterious aluminium trunks and assorted outdoor clothing. He and Marion sit beside Lena and we float out of the hospital grounds into the Govan Road. Wordlessly, Marion hands me two hexagonal pills and a bottle of water. Within minutes, I begin to feel like a . . . I search my head, but find nothing. I don’t know how I am feeling,

All I remember about the drive north is passing the statue of Sir Robert Pearce at Govan cross early on and feeling the hairs on my arm bristle. The great benefactor is leaning perilously to his right. I avert my sleepy eyes. An unsteady bronze statue outside the Cardell Halls in Govan is too much to contend with. Does it augur ill for upcoming events?