Written as a performance piece.
‘Fuck we’re gaun tae drop the baw.’ Billy Gilfedden looks like he’s not all there. We say glaikit, because it’s colourful. Patois with a patina. Language that sits in the throat till you throw it on the pavement. The suit on the telly spouts a language so far removed, he might as well leave it to the subtitles. Dundee said YES two hours ago. A luminescent memory before the flatline.
‘What will we do now?’ Billy reverts to the professional language he uses at Curtis Brown. Junior publishing agents dinnae say cannie, or is it cannie say dinnae? Whatever, he’s not as glaikit as he looks. Four in the morning and the sun will soon hit the bottom of Leith Walk. Skelp its arse more like. Punished for the recalcitrant children we are. We’re drinking Negronis. Again Billy’s idea. Is it a sign of Edinburgh’s new cosmopolitan? Christ, I don’t know. It’s strong. It’s sophisticated. Try saying that after six of these things. Try saying anything coherent. The Negronis had just been chasers in the early part of the night. Back when we thought we might win the damn referendum. Equal measures of Gin, Campari, and Martini Rosso. Equal fuckin’ measures. It’s what we voted Yes for. Fat chance wae aw the auld yins worried for their pensions. We’ve had many more than six. And they’re not helping. But they haven’t left the sour taste. That’s something else.
Billy’s looking for a fight. There is never an Englishman when you want one, though. And we all want one. Oh aye. You see we’re ashamed. Deep down. In that basement place, where conscience picks at our scabs. Deep down ashamed. Our city said NO. Billy feels it more than me. Well he would, wouldn’t he? His folk have been here since before the Romans. He’s a son o’ the Rock. God, I’m blootered. How else would I blether such pish?
“What the fuck d’you find to write about in that bloody notebook, ya wee shite?’. Billy’s not looking for an Englishman. It seems I might suit him better. Here I am hoping his animosity will spend on me, but the five Rangers supporters who’ve just come in, they’re his natural prey. His enemies of choice you could say. But five to two at ten to five in the morning? Well…
‘I suppose you blue-nosed bastards are proud of yerselves? Loyal Orange Order my arsehole.’ The pub has gone quiet. That heavy, oppressive silence before the thunder. The Orangemen take on much needed E numbers – Tennants – the chemical equivalent of PCP. They turn like a formation dance team. Billy Gilfedden was born in the Canongate. His forefathers were here to throw the Vikings out. A Warrior then, braver than his brains. The prods? They have many more than four fathers, and brainless enough to be a real threat.
Children once ran barefoot
down its cobbled span.
Like sewer rats they fed
on shit and shavings;
the crumbs from noble tables
being food for rich men’s dogs.
They paddled in the gutters
of high-crowned, Scotia’s spine.
Watched better men sell birthrights
bought by the blood and tears
of their own mean ancestors.
Earlier children of the hill.
This venal patrimony gifted them
but one great, liberal freedom.
The World entire, the land below the hill.
No land of Canaan; sure,
yet still a favourable prospect
when shoeless on the Royal Mile.
It sums Billy up. His is a nobility born in the gutter, but it’s nobility. It’s why I wrote the poetry. Trouble is it’s not a poet Billy needs, it’s another warrior.
Their champion is enormous, and ugly. He pumps his chest above a foul black heart as they move towards us. Oh Shit! The monster pulls the Rangers’ shirt over his head. It’s a gift to Billy, and he plants his forehead in the fertile soil of the monster’s nose.
I took Lizzie Guthrie to the beach last week. Portobello beach. I thought a declaration of undying love might get me into her knickers. Fat chance. I’m a great lover in iambic pentameter, but Lizzie wanted to know what it might take to have Billy fumbling in her underwear. Still, enough o’ that. I picked up this piece of glass. Abraided by years of roiling tides. Smooth it was; perfect in form and substance, and opaque. I could see my fingers through it. It reminded me of Billy Gilfedden. Of all the Gilfeddens. Shaped and formed by a turbulent past. Easy to rub against but with a keen sharp edge that can split hairs with the best of them. And the transparency? They’re as honest as a long day and incapable of subterfuge. For Billy it’s both blessing and curse and I love him for the enigma. My warrior prince has clay feet. Don’t we all?
The fight? It ends as all such must, with good men standing to be counted. Joe the Pole who works on the bins. Electric John, the mild mannered Englishman who works the lighting at the Playhouse. Me? I didn’t land a single blow against the forces of darkness. I fight paper battles.
In the watered light that passes for morning sunshine, we’re standing beneath the War memorial half way up the hill. As always, Billy’s transfixed. There are Gilfeddens up there. Three from the Great War. Now there’s an exaggerated title for ye. And his grandfather – face down in the sand of Normandy. Billy emanates turbulent silence. His father died in Iraq. He’s not with his ancestors. His name is on some worthy monument elsewhere. ‘But then he didn’t die for freedom,’ Billy says. ‘He died for cheap petrol and coca cola.’ Billy’s not ashamed of his father, he’s ashamed of the people who’s greed put Dad’s name on an alien cenotaph. He recites in silence. I’m a rhymer. I wrote my pal’s favourite ode to battle. It’s called the Floo’ers o’ the Forest.
Death whispers across the ether.
It’s shaded, indistinct form
clings to the shadows,
and calls the roll
from the steps
of the Mercat Cross.
The Flowers of the Forest
are summoned up by name.
The stain of futile death
is placed upon each pillow;
like cattle marked
for slaughter on the morn.
Whilst gilded youth sleeps sound
and dreams it’s bound for glory,
the ground in Northern France
fills with wilted blossom.
Billy thinks he’s a warrior without a fight. Way off the mark. His fight has yet to come. At the bottom of the Canongate we part company. These are his cobbles, not mine.
‘I’ll see ye tomorrow Billy.’
‘Tomorrow?’ God knows what he’s seeing across the width of the Forth.
‘Aye, Tomorrow’ A whispered prayer and he’s out there in his City, way beyond my reach…..