Earwigging

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, No.95, Autumn 2022)

The minister, the Reverend Donald MacAlistair, left the Health Centre with a spring in his step. He’d attended for his annual check-up, a service the centre offered to all their over-65s. His blood pressure had reduced since last year and he’d lost half a stone in weight. The nurse, Alison Forbes, had been quite complimentary. She was one of his parishioners and they’d had a short chat afterwards about the Christmas services. He was smiling as he turned the corner into the Cowgate, heading for the hairdresser’s. But his good mood wasn’t set to last.

The minister still thought of the hairdresser’s as ‘Andrew Patterson’s, the barber’s’, but nowadays it was ‘Raymond’s Unisex Hairdresser’s’. Initially, Reverend MacAlistair had been rather thrown by the gaiety of the new female customers, heads festooned with what appeared to be tin foil streamers; the atmosphere had been rather more subdued in Old Andrew Patterson’s day. And why did proceedings always start with a teenage girl vigorously washing his hair, when he’d washed it himself the day before? But the minister had got used to it, just as he’d got used to dwindling congregations and news stories about Kim Kardashian. He settled into the chair and listened to Raymond’s chatter about Tenerife.

Then Raymond was called away to consult on a customer’s ‘highlights’. Without realising he was doing it, the minister found himself earwigging the conversation of a junior hairdresser and her customer in the chair between him and the shop window. They were laughing about a secondary school teacher called Kirsty who had developed a hopeless passion for a teenage boy, one of her pupils. Apparently, Kirsty was a rather dowdy character and her clumsy attempts to woo young Seb were the talk of the school. Her latest escapade was to hang about outside school gates and…

A thought struck Reverend MacAlistair like a meteorite hitting a swamp full of dinosaurs: Good grief! They were talking about his Kirsty, his daughter Kirsty at the Academy!

Raymond then returned with more would-be soothing talk about the different sizes of different hotel swimming pools. The minister muttered abstracted replies and almost departed without paying. His thoughts were only of his daughter, senior maths teacher at the Academy. Memories of her childhood had so often been a staff for him in times of trouble: as a toddler, her gurgling laughter as she discovered the trampoline properties of the settee; as a ten year-old, falling asleep with her arms around the family dog… Now that staff was torn away from him: his only child was in terrible trouble – her career smashed, herself a figure of scorn and ridicule – and he was helpless to protect her. His Presbyterian forbears had taught that this life was a Vale of Tears, from which the only release was The Everlasting Life to come. For the first time in his long life in the Kirk, he truly appreciated the grimness of that doctrine.

Without thought, his feet had taken him up the hill from the Cowgate, to the kirk and the new manse. Some years ago, economies had necessitating the demolition of the sprawling Victorian manse. The land been sold and a block of flats erected in its place; the new manse was a pleasant modern bungalow in a corner of the old manse grounds. The minister stood by his gate, staring at his wife, Alice, who was kneeling among the roses with gardening gloves and a trowel. Too late, he realised that he had failed to consider how he was to break his news to Alice.

She looked up, stood, and gasped in quick succession. ‘Donald, what on Earth’s the matter? You’re white as a sheet. What’s happened at the Health Centre?’

‘Let’s go inside, dear. The check-up was fine. It’s just…’

‘Donald MacAlistair! If you dinna tell me right away what’s goin’ on, I swear I’ll hit you wi’ this trowel!’

He told her all about the overheard conversation. She was silent for a moment, frowning at the trowel in her hand. ‘Tell me, this boy, is he called Sebastian?’

‘Er, yes… Seb, short for Sebastian.’

She smiled and threw her arms around him, dirty gloves, trowel and all. ‘You daft old git. Sebastian and Kirsty are two characters in Amberdale, that soap serial on the TV!’

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