Digital Ischemia


Overdue part 2/2

Continuing from part 1

Actually here. Twenty-five years later. My face becomes fizzy with the thrill. I turn slowly in my seat. There is a resonant squeak. Definitely the seat; not me. There is also a loose edge of veneer on the table leg before me. My anxiety seems to work itself out by quietly rasping my toe against it.

He is instantly recognisable. I should say something. Preferably not flippant or smartarse. Never mind.
“Since my original stupid idea went so well, here’s another one: shall we speak as if this is 2005? What would you have told me then? How were you?”
He grins. “I just got married. You?”

Are you disappointed? Are you expecting me to be disappointed? It’s not like we were even friends.
He’s being succinct, so I babble. “I’m on number two boyfriend – number two serious – serious but not serious enough to get married. There were others, not serious.”
“I heard about that.” Always an alarming ambiguity.
“Heard what?”
“There was some… traffic to the upper floors in that house.”
I chuckle. “That was my year of being extrovert.”
“I was a bit envious.”
“I would have said you were discreet.”
His turn to chuckle.
“Do you still enjoy your curries?”
He smirks sheepishly. “In 2005 and now.”
I seem to be better at smalltalk, twenty-five years later.

What if? What if I had had this ability in 1995 – to converse by asking interested questions? It’s really so easy.
“I imagined you would have written a book… a rather celebrated and well-cited academic sort of book.”
“I am keen on books. Can I say that? It sounds bizarre. Anyway, I like ones that are already written.”
“Ah, you’re here for the… talk thing.” I riffle through my collection of flyers.
He is tickled with his own ingenuity. “Two birds; one sofa.” That was clever. A way out, should he need it.
“Why is this library promoting preposterous fiction?” Here it is: the flyer for today’s unpromising event.
“It’s supposed to be good.”
“You haven’t read it?” Slightly accusatory. Put him on the defensive. Toe still rasping. Making notes.
“I read the first two chapters then I realised I wasn’t paying attention; I was missing things—there are layers—so I’ve started again.”
“Sounds like hard work.”
“I think it’s more rewarding that way.”
An ideal opening.

“Does that apply to other creative art forms?” Will he accept the rather wide-angle, undergraduate premise? Casually I place the flyer between us, a little closer to him. Unconsciously he starts fiddling with it during a momentary ponder. Gratifyingly he launches what sounds like the defence of a thesis on motif and metaphor in classical sculpture. I am fascinated by such things: if you can decipher the code, you find so much more meaning. I absorb this considered discourse for later digestion. I have plenty more questions, and am not yet replete with cryptic ancient whores, but I have limited time. Having wasted fifteen years. Questions shelved.

As he concludes his executive summary, my discordant segué from sublime to ridiculous is to reach into my bag. One at a time, I pull out those Police tapes. He seems politely amazed. I lightly stack them on the table. My way of saying I didn’t forget about him.
“You had stopped listening to The Police, you said; in favour of?”
“Middle-aged, middle-of-the-road classical stuff mostly.”
“Anything in your mind just now?”
“I think it’s Mendelssohn. I’m not nerdy enough to know exactly which piece. Yours?”
“You won’t be surprised that, although that boyfriend didn’t last the decade, his musical influence did.”
“A bit heavier than The Police?”
I’m still absently making notes. Mostly about classical sculpture. I’ll come back to that.

While we’ve been talking, someone has shifted a couple of gigantic posters advertising the book event into an informal conclave. The seats nearer the prospective pulpit have a sprinkling of gatherers. We seem to be on the back fringe; undecided whether we are partaking or not. I like this non-pushiness of library people. Not presuming and setting up around us.

I stand. He’s surprised, even disappointed.
“You’re not staying for the talk?”
“Unfortunately I just can’t sit through that.”
“Can I give you— get your email?” Points for bravery. “I’d rather not make another appointment.” Points for justified jibe, humour, forgiveness. Not disappointed.
“I think you already have.” An alarming ambiguity?
The poor guy looks a little crestfallen. I indicate the flyer by his grasp and add, “you’re gratifyingly suggestible.”
I smile sweetly at his bewilderment, turn about and stalk over to the gap between posters. Not even a token podium.

Of course it isn’t a mean brush-off: on the flyer I passed him earlier I had written my email – my personal one, underneath the pseudonym and obligatory bio. Always scribbling notes. I’ll be lucky if he doesn’t bin it; it could be blowing around Edinburgh in a couple of hours.

One of the other leaflets I have appropriated: ‘Library Services’. What I’ve scratched on this one is a heavy 1960s style square around ‘Senior Acquisiter’ of something arcane. Nobody expects the Senior Acquisiter. So, not a massive detour from his usual environs. Also the reason he was here twenty-five years ago. He knew exactly where he was going. Professionally, certainly; in the way that I had absolutely no idea. So, it was a long shot in time; not so much in space.

I attempt a welcoming smile to greet the gathering. I can’t stop myself glancing to that furthest seat, to his expression of suspended horror. Can he think I’m some sort of literary protester who hijacks book events? Possibly. But only for a moment. The penny dreadful drops. I mouth, with the appropriate number of fingers aloft.
“Two birds; one sofa.”

If you were paying attention to the layers, you would have noticed gaps in the reported conversation. Not socially awkward. Omissions for ambiguity and even misdirection.
“What would you usually be doing at 2:30?”
“On a good day, I’d be in the archives with the white gloves on.”
“And yourself?”
“On a good day, I’d be transcribing my scintillating ideas from the previous evening.”

Underneath my email address I also wrote ‘Mendelssohn Symphony No.1 movement 3’. My pseudo-anxious seat-squeaking and veneer-rasping repeated a passable minuet phrase, if I do say so myself. Rasp, rasp; squeaky-squeak. Always making notes.

The Police Cassette Tapes – first three albums


Overdue part 1/2

In an utterly self-indulgent parallel universe…

Impossibly for several reasons, I’m sitting in the library on the 27th of July, 2020. I’m fifteen years late. At least. Fine? Are you trying to be funny? I’m not even sure of the date. I think it was July. Why was I in a university library in July? It was definitely the main, non-specific library; but why not my familiar science libraries? Because nothing ever happened in those.

Twenty-five years ago, 1995, I was sitting in a 1960s, very square, uncomfortable chair, in the library foyer, in its 1960s, very square building, in George Square, Edinburgh. Inside concrete geometry inside a summer day. I was hunched over a crumpled utilities bill, scratching notes for myself, probably organising tasks, because I was between shifts and needed to get the most out of my free daytime. Then I heard a familiar voice.

When I try to remember exactly when it was—knowing it’s pointless, but also knowing it’s a loose end which needs to be snipped off, because it can’t be tied up—when I try, I don’t remember anything. Later, when I’m not trying, my memory offers tantalising glimpses that it was late July, about 2:30 pm. I try to be sensible: assume it was after graduation in mid-July 1995, and it was a weekday, the last week was the 24th to the 28th. This year we have Friday the 24th and Monday the 27th. So?

This isn’t my first day here. This is day four. I’ve done the 20th, 21st and 24th already. Obviously, if I’m going to do this past-tense what-if neurosis, I’m not going to hang it all on a half-baked timestamp memory. I like to get the feel of a place. The resonance. Admittedly I don’t usually take days. And libraries are not so much resonant as muffled. Plus I have notes to make for an upcoming promotional event. Don’t really want to take days over that either.

But here I am, just as I was, hunched over my scribbling, only now I use an assortment of library flyers. Libraries are one of the last few places where paper is not a dirty word, where printers are not infernal devices.

On Friday a rather solicitous librarian approached me with the top half of her body at a pronounced angle of enquiry. Her quiet voice was wonderfully soothing and confidential.

“Are you OK? I’ve just, well, we’ve noticed you sitting here…”

These days you can’t assume students are all under 25, but still some people look blatantly out of place. Could I get away with ‘it’s a research project to test whether victims also return to the scene of the crime’?

I try to respond with quiet deference. “Oh dear, am I a security concern?” I had got around needing the usual security papers by remaining in the free access area immediately inside the door. Plus I wanted to remain incognito.

The librarian was more accommodating than the furniture. I tried to give her a short version but it still required explanation. A lot of explanation.

“How romantic.”

“Oh, no, we weren’t even friends, like I said. I just feel bad now for half-suggesting the rendezvous then half-forgetting and half-not being able to anyway.” Flimsy.

What would I say if he actually appeared? An apology would be a good start. “I’m sorry I’m late.” Very late. An explanation then. “I was in (A) prison, (B) a Swiss sanatorium, or (C) the bath.” Flippant doesn’t seem right. Flippant smartarse was where I left it.

We had shared the same flat, student house, for two years, then our accommodations had naturally diverged. We weren’t friends, but now I think I would appreciate him more. Because, of course, I’ve changed but he remains exactly the same. After a couple more years at uni I was still awkward, socially inept, but at least I’d learned some smartarse retorts since he’d last seen me. So as my limited smalltalk rapidly expired, I tried to end with a wacky flourish.

“We should do this again.”

He smiled, half genuine, half going along with the daftness. “We should meet back here in… ten years? The same date, 2005.” He seemed to enjoy the joke.

Was I serious? Did I really intend to honour that appointment? Just even for the hell of it? Ten years is a long time at any age. Thirty years is a very long time, especially to still have three music tapes. Museum pieces. Curatable cassettes. No longer played; I still have a tape player but no longer attached to speakers.

That’s what started this off: music. Always music. My emotional therapy and consolidation of lessons learned. Something on the radio reminded me of these tapes, long untouched but kept, treasured. He was thoughtful enough to give them, no longer his taste, but he had noticed mine.

It’s easy now, twenty-five years later, to cyber-stalk someone. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to actually stalk him. No, not that either. Just cauterise that loose end. Apologise to the place, the space for not thinking through the consequences and move on.

Having decided three days is not quite enough effort, on day four my washing machine protests an accumulation of fluff in some convoluted piece of piping by leaking water all across the kitchen floor. Something similar delayed me attending an appointment thirty years ago, or perhaps I invented that excuse… Mopping up this time means I miss my usual train, so I turn up, once again, late. Perhaps the universal judiciary will appreciate the effort.

I have barely dropped my bag beside my usual cuboid banquette when the attentive librarian scuttles up with her hushed tones. She seems jittery. I can tell because the two mugs of vaporising mud in her hands are mesmerisingly close to spilling. Perhaps my time is up.

“I’m so glad you’re here. I thought you might not come today.”

“Laundry debacle. Are you joining me?” Immediately I feel ashamed because obviously neither drink is for me; she has probably just interrupted her own break out of concern for my clearly unhinged welfare.

“No! No.” Yet she puts the mugs on the bench between seats. “Don’t go anywhere!” Now I think she has called somebody professional to mop me up. She adds, “I mean: you should stay for the talk! About a book…” that seems to be all she has; not enticing. She dashes away to a desk and taps a few computer keys. Probably re-orienting the CCTV cameras at me.

She returns at full tilt and alights opposite me, but remains twitchily alert. She indicates some book promotion posters.

“I’m keeping an eye out for our Host.” I’m keeping an eye out for a GHost.

She confidentially murmurs about someone else she or a colleague remembers waiting, or at least sitting patiently, a few summers ago. I nod politely, after all I am patiently waiting. The least I deserve while playing out this feeble non-drama is to listen to somebody else’s. I try to pay attention; I really do. There’s just her soporific murmuring and the soft bump of books.

In a moment, the background rustle of respectful readers resolves into the scuff of slippers, worn down on the inner sides of the heels, crossing ancient kitchen vinyl floor. Instantly recognisable, as is the voice approaching behind me. And what does he say?

“Sorry I’m late.”

Concludes at part 2


Robert McNeil, Sir

Robert McNeil caricature

Robert McNeil

The turn of the century found me in Edinburgh, desperate furra change of joab. This in turn found me slapping through The Scotsman newspapyrus on Fridays with sputtering hope of my dream professional opportunity and my ready ability to rip any vaguely promising advertisement to tatters in extracting it fae the page. My slapping was arrested by a phizog: I’ve a weakness for an unclupped barnet and here was one fine flowing specimen, be-bearded too, and furthermore cartoonified. This caricatural eye-candy was the byline for Robert McNeil and his Week. I should sample this boy’s wares.

Simultaneously, but coincidentally, Scotville gave birth to its ane wee baby parliament. The wean was initially incubated in a contorted gothic tardis, accessed aff the High Street on foot only, via a close, a tunnel, a giddying left-hander and a ramped glass decontamination chamber. Allegedly a religional edifice, the public viewing balconette with spittle-proof perspex was reminiscent of the bingo hall-cum-cinema of the parochial toun where I wiz schooled. However, the entertainment was somewhat elevated.

In those formative days – of the parly, no masel’ – the big twae and a hoaf: Donald Dewar, Alex Salmond and David McLetchie wid debate. Thursday afternoon was First Minister’s question time and simultaneously, but coincidentally, my day aff. Stratospheric needle-nosed Donald, wee caterpillar-eyebrowed Alex, and the bristly one, scythed such witty repartee about, such banter, ye almost forgot they were meant to be governing.

That wiz the thing, see: this McNeil fella seemingly had been there too. He wrote about our shared experience but, oh my goodness, with such hallucinogenic elaboration upon reality, and ascension into the hysterical surreal, that I quickly jettisoned my neonatal interest in politics and transferred allegiance to the Sketch.

Uncle Robert – my initial adolescent-style infatuation had to evolve to relate my affections to someone so clearly out of my league – wrote about other things too: he stoatered aboot Embra-toun, he reported in the Embra vernacular, inventing wurds where common language failed and shovelling in a good few literary lexicals too. He deprecated hissel’ jist as much as anything else. He inhabited a meta-Embra. I fancied I could waft about there too. It was the imaginary Elysium I sought through drink and always missed the turn for. And of course he made my lungs spasm rather pleasantly. He became legend.

Shamefully, after 68 applications, I got a new joab. I moved out of toun chasing a mortgage, a manageable commute and other unoriginal life tedia, and disappeared up my own arsehole. Recently asking myself why, why, why, brought back misty-eyed memories of rudely suspended influences. I summoned the wab to my idiot lantern and dialed up the Hootsmon. Pages of finger-tingling results. Mr McNeil’s consistently chortlesome observations preserved just in case I should come to ma senses. For example: I love the park though of course it makes me miserable. I am in raptures.

Sadly the 21st Century-style date-stamps abruptly fizzle at August 2009. You want to know how it ends? Naw, ye dinnae. Did he get soocked into yin ae his transvortectional pipeways to ooterspace? Gie up the writing? Naw, efter a brief stint in the ether in 2010, he went tae Glesga. Ach.

Away noo an’ gie us peace wi’ ma back issues.

Blog at