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issue 23: March - April 2001 

spanish translation | author bio

Alasdair Gray

A MILD SEPTEMBER morning. A man no longer young strolls thoughtfully on a narrow footpath along a former railway line. Noises tell of a nearby motorway but brambles, elders and hawthorns on each side hide all but the straight empty path ahead until he sees a small clearing on his right. Two girls sit here at the foot of an old telegraph pole. He pauses, gazing up at the top of the pole, examining its cracked grey timber, cross-pieces with insulators like small white jam pots from which dangle broken wires. He has noticed the girls are in their teens, look surly and depressed, wear clumsy thick-soled boots and baggy military trousers from which rise pleasantly slim bodies. One says crossly, 'What are you staring at?'
       'At the wires of that sad sad pole!' says the man without lowering his eyes, 'A few years ago they carried messages from this land of ours to a world-wide commercial empire.'
      'A few years? It was yonks ago,' says the girl contemptuously. Without looking straight at her the man glimpses a stud piercing her lower lip and one through the wing of a nostril. He says, 'Yonks? Yes. I suppose this pole was defunct before you were born.'
      He continues looking up at it until the other girl stands, stretches her arms, pretends to yawn, says 'I'll better away,’ and goes off through the bushes. Her companion still sits as she did before the stroller arrived.
      A minute later he takes a folded newspaper from his coat pocket, unfolds it, lays it on the grass where the departed girl sat, then sits carefully down with hands clasped round the knee of a bent leg. Looking sideways at the girl (who still pretends to ignore him) he says quietly, 'I must ask you a difficult question about … the eff word. Does it shock or annoy you? I don't mean when used as a swear word, I hate swearing, I mean when used as a word for the thing ... the act lovers do together. Eh?'
      After allowing her a moment to reply he speaks briskly as if they had reached an agreement.
      'Now I fully realize that a lovely young woman like you -' (she sneers) '- don't sneer, has no wish to eff with a boring old fart like me in bushes beside a derelict railway line. But I suppose you are unemployed and need money?'
      'Fucking right I do!' she cries.
      'Don't swear. This is an unfair world but I am no hypocrite, I am glad I have money you need. We should therefore discuss how much I am willing to pay for what you are prepared to do. I promise that a wee chat will probably give all the satisfaction I need. I have never been greatly enamoured with the down-to-earth, flat-out business of effing.'
      'Ten pounds!' says the girl, facing him at last. He nods and says, 'That is not unreasonable.'
      'Ten pounds now! Nothing without cash up front!' she says, holding out a hand. From a wallet within his coat he gives her bank notes.
      'Thanks,' she says, pocketing them and standing up, 'Cheerio.'
      He looks up at her wistfully. She says, 'You're too weird for me as well as too old and you're right. This is an unfair world.'
      She goes off through the bushes. He sighs and sits there, brooding.
      Then hears a rustling of leaves. The other girl emerges and stands watching him. He ignores her until she says, 'I didnae really go away. I was listening all the time behind that bush I don't think you're weird. Not dangerous-weird. You're just ... funny.'
      'Name?' he asks drearily.
      'I thought the Scottish custom of making daughters' names out of fathers' names had died out.'
      'It came back. What's your name?'
      'I'm giving nothing else away today, Davida. Don't expect it.'
      But he is looking at her. She grins cheerily back until he shrugs and pats the grass beside him. She hunkers down slightly further away, hugging her legs with both arms and asking brightly, 'What were you going to say to Sharon?'
      'You too want cash from me.'
      'Aye, some, but not as much as Sharon. Forget about money. Say what you like, I won't mind.'
      He stares at her, opens his mouth, swallows, shuts his eyes tight and mutters 'Bigpocketswithbuttonedflaps.'
      'Big,' he explains deliberately, 'Pockets. With. Buttoned. Flaps. At last I have said it.'
      'They turn you on?' says Davida, looking at her pockets in a puzzled way.
      'Yes!' he says defiantly, 'Because violence is sexy! These pockets are military pockets with room for ammunition clips and grenades and iron rations. On women they look excitingly . . . deliciously . . . unsuitable.'
      'Yes, I suppose that's why they're in fashion, but they're nothing to get excited about.'
      'I enjoy being excited about them,' he groans, covering his face with his hands.
      'Were you a school teacher?'
      'You'll get nothing more out of me, Davida ... Why do you think I was a teacher?'
      'Because you're bossy as well as polite. Yes, and teachers have to pretend to be better than normal folk so they're bound to go a bit daft when they retire. What did you want to do with Sharon's pockets that was worth ten quid?'
      He looks obstinately away from her.
      'Did you want to stick your hands in them like THIS?' she giggles, putting her hands in her pockets, 'Did you want to fumble about in them like THIS?'
      'No more dirty talk!' orders a very tall thin youth emerging from the bushes, 'How dare you molest this young lady with obscene and suggestive insinuations?'
      'ME molest HER? Ha!' cries the man and lies back flat on the grass with hands clasped behind head. He thinks it wise to look as relaxed and unchallenging as possible for he is now greatly outnumbered. Beside the tall youth is a small youth who looks more menacing because his face is expressionless, his head completely bald, and beside him stands Sharon saying scornfully, 'Big pockets with buttoned flaps!'
      'You should have left us alone a bit longer,' grumbles Davida, 'He was starting to enjoy himself.'
      'He was starting to enjoy his antisocial fetishistic propensities with a lassie young enough to be his grand-daughter!' cries the tall youth fiercely.
      'Molesting two lassies in fifteen minutes!' says Sharon, 'We've witnesses to prove it. He's got to pay us for that.'
      The man says, 'I've paid you already.'
      'That ... is not an attitude ... I would advocate if you want to stay in one piece,' says the tall boy, slowly taking from a big pocket in his trousers a knife with a long blade. The smaller, more dangerous-looking youth says 'Hullo Mr McCorquodale.'
      The man sits up to see him better and asks, 'How's the family Shon?'
      'Dad isnae out yet but Sheila's doing well in TV rentals. She went to Australia.'
      'Yes, Sheila was the smartest of you. I advised her to leave Scotland.'
      'I KNEW he was a teacher,' says Davida smugly.
      'You stupid fucking cretin!' the tall boy yells at the shorter one, 'If you'd kept out the way we could have rolled him for all he's got, buggered off and nothing would have happened! We don't live round here, we've no police record, nobody could have found us! But now he knows you we'll have to evade identification by cutting off his head and hands and burying them miles away!'
      He saws the air wildly with the knife. The girls' faces express disgust. The smaller youth says mildly 'Don't do that to old Corky, he wasnae one of the worst.'
      'Not one of the worst?' cries the ex-teacher jumping lightly to his feet, 'Did I not make my gym a living hell for you and your brothers? I also advise YOU,' he tells the taller youth, 'to put that knife away. You obviously don't know how to handle it.'
      'And you do?' says the tall boy sarcastically.
      'Yes son, I do. I belong to the generation that did National Service. Your combat training is all from television and video games. When eighteen I was taught armed AND unarmed combat by professional killers in the British army. Davida! Sharon! Shon! Persuade your friend to pocket that bread knife. Tell him he's a fine big fellow but I'm stronger than I look and if he's really interested in dirty fighting I can teach him tricks that'll have the eyes popping out of his head. Tell him I gave Sharon all the money I carry so if he needs more he'll have to come home with me.
      And McCorquodale smiles wistfully at the tall youth's combat trousers.

2000 Alasdair Gray

This electronic version of  "Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It was first published in New Writing 9, Vintage, in association with The British Council, 2000. Book ordering available through amazon.co.uk

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author bio

Alasdair Gray was born in Glasgow in 1934. He trained at the art school there and has lived mainly by painting, writing and, since 1981, book design, mostly of his own books. His novels include Lanark, 1982 Janine, The Fall of Kelvin Walker, Something Leather, McGrotty and Ludmilla, Poor Things and A History Maker. His other books are, Unlikely Stories Mostly, Lean Tales (with Agnes Owens and James Kelman), Ten Tales Tall and True and Mavis Belfrage and Four Shorter Tales; a poetry collection, Old Negatives; a play, Working Legs (for People Without Them), and Why Scots Should Rule Scotland 1992 and 1997; and The Anthology of Prefaces.

navigation:    barcelona review 23           March - April 2001

Alasdair Gray: Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps
Thomas Glave: Whose Song?
Mark Anthony Jarman: Cougar
Ryland Greene: The Compatibility Factor
Jai Clare: Ramblista

picks from back issues:
Matt Marinovich: Slide Show *new Flash version
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles

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