First thing I saw off the subway was a jakey taking a pish on a poster for a band I knew from around the west end. They were locals, from Newton Mearns or somewhere like that. They’d met at Glasgow Uni and spent most of their time slouching at café tables around Otago Lane, but since cracking the big time they’d been talking in interviews about being on the dole and life in the estate. To be fair, they’d probably spent a lot of time on the dole, but they’d shite their skinny jeans if they encountered the Young Team of an evening. As would I.
Meeting Callie’s parents was my idea, but I’d had to lobby for it. I couldn’t understand why it had taken so long. We’d been together nearly two years and living together three months, only a few miles away in Hillhead. Ten minutes to Bridge St. by subway, then a ten minute walk to Malcolm and Liz’s flat in the Gorbals. We walked slow, holding hands. It was spring weather, raining like fuck one minute then sunshine and rainbows the next.
She was on the phone with them all the time, always the landline. She’d talk to Liz for an hour or more, telling her what she was up to at work and what we’d bought for the flat. She always seemed to be reassuring her ma, about work, the size of our mortgage payments, her health. I knew when Liz had put Malcolm on the phone because Callie’s voice would deepen. They’d talk politics and football, then hang up after no more than five minutes. They sounded like nice enough parents. Not like my grim-as-fuck father and stepmother in Milngavie, who’d sulked through Sunday lunch with Callie a year back and left the sunflowers she’d brought them from the organic grocery on Byres Road sagging in the kitchen sink.
When we got to the pub they were standing outside. Callie embraced them both; Malcolm hugged her tight, thumped her back with his hand.
‘There’s my clever wee girl’. He released her and looked at me. So did Liz, hugging her daughter with far less force as Callie attempted to introduce me.
‘This is Joe’. That’s when I knew I was dressed like an arsehole. Callie had dressed in jeans and a plain top, and wore none of her vintage jewellery or Indian scarves. I hadn’t even noticed. Malcolm eyed the beads around my neck and wrist from our trip to Nepal, and my jeans, which suddenly felt like a leotard in comparison with the trackie trousers and standard west-of-Scotland-man suits passing me by while I fidgeted. I wasn’t sure whether to offer him my hand or wait until he offered me his. Liz rescued me.
‘Nice to meet you Joe, and it’s about time.’ She put out her hand and squeezed my elbow. She was tiny, much younger than I’d expected, though Callie had mentioned she had young parents. Malcolm didn’t look young, though. He had the sort of face and body that lives in permanent middle age. He nodded.
‘Right, let’s get inside fore it pishes doon again.’
He insisted on buying the round. We found a table near a big window that seemed permanently dust-clogged.
‘This is a nice pub’, I said. ‘It’s not often I see ones with the original stained glass.’ It was a badly refurbished bar, the stained glass the only remaining feature and the booths torn out to make way for a scattering of ugly chairs, but I sensed it was their local and wanted to say something nice about it. Malcolm wasn’t impressed.
‘Place is pure shite now, used to be a good working men’s pub before that bitch Thatcher ruined the country. Full of junkies and piss heads nowadays.’
‘Which part of the town do you come from, Joe?’ asked Liz.
‘I come from Bearsden originally, but we moved to Milngavie when I was wee. My dad still lives there, and my stepmother. Callie says you come from that part of the city as well?’
‘I’m from Drumchapel son. Not quite so grand as Bearsden, but nearby right enough.’
‘Ma, it’s fine. It’s a nice estate, gran’s place is lovely.’ Liz smiled at Callie and made an indiscernible noise with her teeth.
‘Oh aye, my sister’s a social worker up in Drumchapel.’ I knew it was the wrong thing as soon as it fell out of my mouth. Why couldn’t I have said my sister works in Drumchapel? Fuck knows. I felt Callie twitch beside me.
‘Oh aye son, is she?’ Liz spoke with forced enthusiasm. Malcolm’s face was like Callie’s when she came home and found junkmail jamming the letterbox.
‘Fucking social workers, lazy bastarts. Collect a nice wage right enough, push their shite on honest folk. Let weans die like they ones down the road, like that wee girl in London killed by her aunty and uncle. Butchered so she was. ‘
‘Malcolm, now. The boy’s sister is a social worker.’ Liz turned to me.
‘Nevermind him son.’
‘Eh, well. They do some good work…’ I let my sentence flit away. I looked at the table. The wood was bashed. The varnish had been dented by a few hot plates over the years. Dozens of sticky rings linked like something I’d seen years before at a gallery in Merchant City, tea mugs dipped in yellow paint and pressed against an old plastic table. From a distance the pattern was meant to look like the initials of a Soviet dissident painter, an ancestor of the artist. Callie squeezed my knee.
‘Auch dad, Joe’s sister’s quite good. She works with women coming out of shelters. She’s a good laugh, you’d like her.’
I wanted to go home. I could taste home, the wooden doorways of our flat, cool and sweet like the skin on Callie’s thighs. I could see her sitting in her chair by the window with the Sunday Herald, rubbing her ankles, fiddling with her hair. The light dull through the rain, blinds rolled up as far as possible to let all the light we have in Glasgow through the tenement windows. We should be home. We could go, get a taxi and be there in twenty minutes with no traffic. There’d be no traffic today.
Malcolm was speaking to me.’ You’ll have another pint, aye son?’
‘Aye Malcolm. It’s my turn, but.’ He nodded and grimaced, settling awkwardly back in the wobbly chair. I couldn’t understand how his thick, stiff limbs shared DNA with Callie. Liz, on the other hand, looked frail. She glanced out the dirt-dull window. The sun was coming out, melting through the glass. She squinted and raised her eyebrows at the same time; the light caught the shot of red in her hair, making her look a bit like Callie.
‘What can I get you to drink, Liz?’
‘The same again son, thank you.’ She lifted her nearly empty glass and flashed a real grin at me that was almost flirtatious. I grinned back.
When I got back from the bar, the three of them were having a great chat, all talking at once in the easy way some families have with each other. I felt like a dick. I could still feel the old barman smirking at my vintage cowboy shirt. I put the tray down, nearly spilling Callie’s pint on her faded purple top, which I now recognized as the one she wore for her pilates class.
‘Steady love’, she said, looking at me with that surprisingly sexy squint that made me want her to begin with, the day we met at Charing Cross, in the beer garden of a Bukowsky-themed bar. She lifted her glass without toasting and drank decisively. Her wrists looked naked without her plastic bangles, reminding me of her evening ritual, pulling off her jewelry and rubbing mango-scented cream into her skin. Home was not far away. We could get a bus just outside, probably.
Malcolm fixed me with a look I couldn’t interpret. I made a production of adjusting my chair.
‘Joe.’ It was the first time he’d said my name. ‘Tell me son, do you love my daughter?’ I expected Liz to shush him again, but she didn’t. She looked at me in her clear and calm way, the fine wrinkles of her face vanishing and reappearing in the shifting daylight.
‘Yes Malcolm, I love Callie very much. We’ve talked about getting ma…’
‘Son, never mind that shite. Callie disnae care about tradition and neither do Liz and I. What I want to know is, will you be good to my daughter. She’s an educated woman. She could go away, travel the world, but if she’s hell bent on settling doon so early I want you to know, son, you are with a woman who could go anywhere, but she’s choosin to be here with you.’
The speech was incredible. I faded in its light, then revived.
‘Yes, Malcolm. I know that. I know it well.’
‘Right then’, said Malcolm, raising his pint, ‘Sláinte’.
It was nearly dark when we left the pub. A cold wind moved crisp wrappers and cigarette ends into small whirlwinds between what was left of the high flats. The lead angel swayed in the nearby archway, Gatekeeper to a former leper colony, chains creaking. Somewhere in the other direction the bones of St Valentine allegedly rested, decaying. Malcolm wanted to find us a taxi.
‘No thanks Dad, we’ll walk back to Bridge St. from here.’ Callie kissed Liz and hugged Malcolm. He held her for a few seconds and mumbled something in her ear. Liz put her hand on my elbow and kissed my cheek. She was much smaller than Callie and had to stand on her toes to reach. From Malcolm I got a rough handshake. He held my hand for a moment longer than I expected. He nodded at me.
‘It was nice to meet you son’, said Liz. ‘Don’t be a stranger.’
Miriam is a Stuttgart-based writer and teacher who freelances for publications in Scotland, Canada, England, India, Russia and the US. She comes from Atlantic Canada and lived in Glasgow long enough to be considered a local. She’s worked in the Scottish 3rd sector (specialising in abuse prevention legislation), and taught in Burma and Russia. She has travelled widely, lived next to the Babayevsky chocolate factory in Moscow, driven a rickshaw in Kerala and is known for having strange encounters with border guards. She blogs at http://miriam-littlebones.blogspot.com and tweets as @miriamvaswani.