Fin McPhail has made three terrible mistakes.
The first – running away from Scotland to Amsterdam.
The second – getting the hots for a sex therapist.
The third mistake – and possibly the last he’ll ever make – confessing his darkest secrets.
And now, over the course of a chaotic weekend in Europe’s city of sin, all of Fin’s mistakes are coming back to hunt him down…
So I got the job in Amsterdam. In the weeks that followed I packed up my life in Scotland and tried not to think about Kathleen. Unsuccessfully, of course. I saw her once: I was on a bus going round the corner at Haymarket and she was waiting at the pedestrian crossing – our eyes met briefly through the window and slid away from each other again, a brief intersection of past lives.
My old pal Dingo couldn’t make it through to Edinburgh for my farewell party, but turned up the day after. Lunchtime, the intercom buzzer tore into the silence, and there he was, with bacon rolls and a six-pack. I was hungover, still in my dressing gown. We ate our rolls, polished off the beer, and jumped in a taxi. He gave the driver directions to a tattoo parlour on Leith Walk. I protested to Dingo, he protested back. We’ve both got an appointment, he said, as if that made it okay.
I had never entertained the idea of a tattoo in the past, but at that precise moment – fuzzy-headed as the taxi swung corners, impending emigration like the end of the world looming – I decided to go with whatever he had planned. Two hours later we sat in the Elm Bar, arms bandaged, sipping Guinness. Retro lion rampants inked on our skin, accompanied by – at Dingo’s insistence – the legend ‘Scotland Forever’. That’s us barcoded now, he said.
And so I left.
On that first day in Amsterdam I felt like Dorothy in Oz, transported from monochrome to technicolour. A taxi took me from the airport into the city, and edged along the canals deep into the Jordaan until reaching my apartment. I headed out to explore the neighbourhood just as it was getting dark. Strings of lights on the old canal bridges dripped orange reflections onto the water. The bars were a hubbub of warm sepia colours. I found a Thai restaurant near my new home and ordered some takeaway. I watched the staff throwing handfuls of ingredients into woks and scraping these bits of green and red around as flames licked the sides of the pot. I walked home past the rows of gabled houses, the occasional bicycle bell pinging through the autumn quiet. And back at my new flat, which smelled of dust and other people, I opened the takeaway by poking my thumbs through the plastic bag. Red chillies and green beans that squeaked against my teeth, chicken that tingled in my mouth with lemongrass and ginger. The food tasted of a new life.
I had big plans for a fresh start. I joined a gym and started boxercising. I bought a bike and cycled to work every day. I went to cafes in the evening and drank mint tea and flicked through the pages of university brochures for MBA distance learning. At the office I worked long hours with the lawyers to transfer Cloudburn brand ownership over to the new company. A slow realisation crept in – my job had been dumbed down. I spent the next few weeks working with a Lithuanian temp to transfer brand data and upload Cloudburn’s artwork into Stalwart’s product data system. Long days ticking through lists as screeds of files were converted into PDFs and loaded up into the system so that account managers in Miami or Singapore or Buenos Aires could view product images at a double-click. The temp didn’t show up one day, or the next, leaving nothing behind except his door pass and an empty pack of cigarettes. As snow whirled down on Amsterdam, the data entry tasks fell on my head, and I ended up working over Christmas to meet the legal deadline for January 1st. Keyboard rattling as I sat in the empty office, hooked up to my iPod, typing in product numbers. Whisky had always meant a kind of mystery to me: silent men in blue overalls walking between vats, sheets of rain falling on old buildings, the alchemy of air and water converting to spirit. Now it was a different sort of mystery.
Perhaps this befuddlement led to my downfall.
A bitter January Saturday: cobbles grouted with frost, skin of ice on the canals, and a savage wind. I was on my way to visit the Van Gogh Museum. But halfway down Prinsengracht I glanced up an alleyway and spotted a saltire flag billowing from the side of a building.
A Scottish pub. The façade made up of planks of dark varnished wood and the ends of whisky barrels ramshackled together, the pub’s name – The Nova Scotia – carved in black Celtic script on pine. Two windows revealing little of the insides other than the blue glow of a plasma TV. Next to the lacquered door a glass-encased sheet of A4 paper displayed the menu: Full Scottish Breakfast, Ayrshire Bacon on a Morning Roll, Haggis Neeps & Tatties served with Whisky & Oatcakes, Stovies & Gravy, Grilled Salmon & Chips, Battered Fish & Chips, Chicken & Chips, Cheeseburger & Chips. I loitered for a few seconds, and then decided to have a pint to warm myself up.
The interior was an eye-watering stramash of clashing tartans: green and blue pinstriped tablecloths, and red, black and orange wallpaper. Framed pictures of B-list Scots hung on the walls. Antlers dangled from the rafters.
A man with straggly black hair stood behind the bar, frowning into the distance, arms planted in front of him. Callum MacBean, the landlord. The lone punter sat opposite, a Northern Irish guy with a half-beard. Drew Morrow. My new best friends. I stayed in the pub for eight pints, listening to Morrow prattling on about Amsterdam’s freedoms and sins.
The Nova Scotia became a gateway drug, opening me up to further vices. I started going three or four times a week. MacBean knew how to hook me: cask eighty shilling from a small Perthshire brewery, free oatcakes and cheddar, cheery piss-taking and random banter. It became a refuge from the pile of admin at the office. It was a thrill to get on my bike after work and bomb through Westerpark, swishing through parkland and on through sidestreets and canals, until I could stop pumping the pedals and freewheel my way towards the dangling flag.
MacBean tolerated cannabis at quiet times, and once we got the nod Morrow would roll skinny joints and we would smoke and drink until we could no longer talk or think. Jukebox belting away, usually Del Amitri or Hipsway or other Jocktastic singalong, clinking glasses and watching the puggie lights shift and shimmer.
Sometimes on those headache mornings at work I would think about Kathleen. I would imagine her in our old flat living her detoxified life of meditation and mineral water, Hamish praying next to her with his trimmed beard and hiking trousers with zip-off legs. Those pictures would creep into my head along with the hangover but I could banish them with hard work and strong tea. And anyway, I’d console myself, there were worse vices in Amsterdam than a fondness for a few beers. In my forays onto the expat scene I’d always been surprised at how often the respectable bankers or IT consultants I spoke to would be telling me by pint four all about the prostitutes they’d slept with, or the darkrooms they’d been in. For a boy from smalltown Scotland it was a shock to hear what went on: the endless availability of tits and pills and powders and cocks and holes. At least I wasn’t one of these lost boys stumbling between neon basements. I was just a lonely lush.
On a Saturday night in July, nine months into my Amsterdam life, I was entrenched at the bar with Morrow. We were both enjoying the peace and quiet before his Surinamese girlfriend Esther turned up. She always came along to the pub to berate him for his slothful alcoholic lifestyle, while quaffing glass after glass of white wine herself.
MacBean was keeping the pints flowing in our direction. He also had an active love life, working on a bisexual rota, dating women one month and men the next. He was incapable of keeping his sex life private and would typically spend a couple of hours huffing and sighing behind the bar until blurting out his current dilemma, which inevitably resulted in Morrow deriding him as a pervert and a slut. This was always followed by a five-minute shouting match until MacBean threatened to close the pub early, and Morrow of course shut his mouth.
I always avoided talking about my sex life, or more specifically the lack of it, until MacBean broke the silence on the subject and asked me who or what I had sex with.
I told them I wasn’t sure anymore – it had been more than a year.
Are you fockin serious? Morrow said.
I told them I didn’t feel like it at the moment. The truth was it felt like someone had pillaged my library of sexual thoughts and feelings, emptied the encyclopaedias off the shelves into skips and towed it all away, leaving nothing but vacant corridors and skeletal racks.
Morrow coughed, some kind of embarrassed reflex, and I was aware of him and MacBean smirking at each other: Someone who doesn’t have sex – how fucked up is this?
I still remember MacBean’s words. We all have our reasons for being who we are.
The next day I got an email from MacBean saying that he’d thought of an old friend I would click with. Attached to the email was a photograph of a smiling brunette sitting at a cafe table. This is Lindy typed below. She was cute. MacBean said Lindy had a thing for Celtic men. MacBean was pretty sure he could set up a blind date: all I needed to do was call.
I spent some time that evening looking at Lindy’s photo. It was hard to remember the process and emotions of going on a date. I tilted the photo at various angles to try and ascertain the colour of her eyes, the length of her legs, the size of her breasts. And then I spent some time looking at myself in the mirror: my thinning hair, my grey skin, my empty eyes.
I rang MacBean the next day. He spoke quietly, bar noise in the background, and said he’d fix me up. She emailed. I was to meet her at seven o’clock on Friday at 15 Canada Laan. It was where she worked: if I just asked for Lindy then someone would show me where to go. She signed her email off with a line that made me queasy with possibility. We can go get some apple pie, I know a great place. Lindy xxx.
That night I lay awake, the shadows moving across the bedroom wall as dawn filtered into morning, a feeling of pure and condensed loneliness so thick in the room I could almost breathe it.
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