(first published in Fictive Dream, Nov. 13th, 2016)
It’s a week since Kate and I had the row. It started at a far-away station (Kate’s reverse parking) and picked up more and more momentum en route – my old leather jacket, the joke I told at Kate’s sister’s wedding, the snore wars, the Spanish holiday from Hell, correct and incorrect loading of the dishwasher, and Kate’s dad’s halitosis. It ended with us hitting the buffers and Kate exiting at the terminus. Well, I’m certainly not going to be the one to call and apologise.
I inform the weather girl on the car radio of my iron resolve and switch to the CD player. It’s the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man and I’m soon joining in on the chorus. I reflect, not for the first time, that it should me barrelling along the freeway, heading out of Nashville Tennessee, not Greg Allman. Let Greg Allman try driving around the Castlemilk Scheme doing home interviews for a Medical Research Council study: not much to sing about there, Greg.
Not for the first time, I regret not getting a replacement satnav. It’s no good asking directions on these big Glasgow estates: people don’t even know the name of the next street. But eventually I find the address, only a couple of minutes late. It’s a distressed-looking, terraced maisonette. I walk up the path to the door; I can see the interviewee, a large guy, peering at me out the window. Waiting on the step, I consider the received wisdom that it’s natural for religions to represent paradise as a garden. Clearly those wise men and women had never visited Castlemilk.
Miranda, the study leader, gives me the most difficult interviewees. I’m the most experienced of the interviewers, having worked on the study since the beginning, six years ago. In return, Miranda never queries my mileage claims. We are now interviewing these ex-psychiatric patients for the third time. When this guy was last interviewed, two years ago, a note was entered on the file that there had been difficulties. That could mean several things: it could mean difficulty in understanding the questions, poor attention span, lack of privacy to conduct the interview on a confidential basis, and occasionally, also possible concerns about interviewer safety. The last one is always at the back of my mind. But when the guy eventually opens the door, he’s all smiles:
‘Hey boss! You’re the guy from the Uni, right? Cool. Been waiting for you, boss. That your car? Red, eh? That’s the only colour for a car, eh boss?’
I decide right away that this guy has been topping up his psychiatric medication with something less orthodox. We head into the sitting room. As we sit down, I show him photo ID with the university logo and Miranda’s signature as study leader.
‘OK, John. Here’s my ID. You’ve done two of these interviews before, so you know anything you tell me is confidential. When these study findings are reported, no names will be used. The interviews usually take about three quarters of an hour. Is it OK to begin?’
But I notice he’s not attending to me at all. He’s just staring fixedly at my ID card. When he raises his head to look at me, his good mood has vanished like snow off a dyke.
‘Whit’s this name? Damon McCarthy? Damon? Whit kinda name’s that?’
‘Do you not like the name “Damon”, John? Well, I’ve a twin – Desmond. You can call me Desmond, if you like. How’s that? Deal or no deal?’
But I’m not getting through. He’s rising to his feet.
‘You picked the wrong house, Mr Damon. I’m wise to you, you fucker.’
He picks up a DVD cover from the arm of his chair. He’s been watching something called, The Devil Rides Out. Oh dear.
I never saw the film, but I read the book when I was a kid. Not great literature, though I remember one character was memorably described as having a ‘leg-of-mutton fist.’ As to the plot, the clue is in the title: a witches’ coven, satanic rituals, the summoning of the Devil, etc, etc. I twig why John doesn’t like the name Damon. John has backed towards the mantelpiece and picked up a small holy picture and a paper knife. I’m standing too and edging round the back of the settee.
‘Hey, John. You’ve got this wrong, pal. Damon’s not the same as “demon”. My mum says it comes from the Greek, like Alexander. Damon means “gentle” in Greek. Look it up on Wikipedia.’
John is shaking his head and grimacing and brandishing in front of him the holy picture (The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, I think).
‘Can’t fool me, you fucker. You’ll have the witches’ mark on you, right enough.’
‘Eh? The witches’ mark?’
I’m playing for time here, but I should have stuck with the Wikipedia line.
‘Yeah, Mr Damon. The witches’ mark. The mark the Devil uses to mark his own.’
This isn’t going well. I can’t get over how BIG John is. He reminds me of Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s massive Scottish centre half when I was a kid.
‘You know, John, you remind me of someone…’
But John is following his own train of thought.
‘Let’s see that mark, you fucker. Let’s see it, LET’S SEE IT!!’
He’s screaming, spittled lips, advancing, knife-waving. I’m retreating. In silence, we complete a half-circuit of the settee.
I shrug my jacket off. Too late, I remember that my mobile – set on speed dial for emergencies – is in the jacket pocket.
John’s losing patience, as I fumble with my tie, and he starts around the settee again. Luckily, I’m wearing moccasins I can slip off without hopping on one foot. The socks are more difficult, but I manage somehow. I’m not sure how it happened, maybe John’s holy picture, started me off, but while I’m frantically shrugging off my clothes, I’m also sending a kind of silent prayer to Kate.
‘Kate, Kate, what an eejit I am. Who gives shit about your reverse parking, or your dad’s halitosis? I love you, I love you to bits.’
We’re on the second settee circuit now and I wonder about diving through the living room door while John’s on the far side of the settee. On the third circuit, my shirt is off and I can tell John is peering across the settee at my torso, looking for flaws.
‘Whit’s that?’ He’s pointing with the knife. ‘That wee thing beside your armpit, you fucker!’
I glance down. It’s a small skin tag. I’ve had it for a while – one of those wee flaws that develop as you get older.
‘It’s just one of those wee skin tags, John. Just one of those things you sometimes get on your skin as you get older. It’s nothing. Gimme your knife and I’ll cut it off to show you.’
‘You’re nae gettin’ my knife, you fucker!’
We start the fourth circuit, but John trips over one of my moccasins. I dash for the living room door and fling it open. On the other side of the door is a little white-haired lady with thick-lensed glasses, holding a tea tray complete with teapot, two cups and saucers, milk jug, sugar bowl, tongs, two plates and a packet of fig roll biscuits. I stop dead. She smiles at me.
‘Thanks for getting the door, son. I’m John’s gran. I thought the two o’ yez might fancy a spot o’ tea.’ She walks into a room containing a stranger dressed only in grey slacks and her grandson sprawled on the floor, clutching a knife and a picture of the Virgin Mary.
She puts the tray down on a small occasional table. That breaks the spell. I grab my jacket and I’m into the hall and down the path and into the car, faster than Hussain Bolt. Even though fig rolls are my favourite.
Once I get over the Kingston Bridge and into Partick, I park up and call Kate.