44 Scotland Street: The world according to Bruce

VOLUME 10, episode 37: MATTHEW had not seen Bruce for some months.

Illustration by Iain McIntosh.
Illustration by Iain McIntosh.

On the last time they met, which was by accident in George Street, Bruce had been about to enter a bar with people whom Matthew vaguely recognised but did not really know. He had acknowledged Bruce with a nod of the head and a half-hearted wave, but he did not want to get involved with the rowdy, exuberant crowd.

They were, he knew, the friends with whom Bruce had worked in his days as a surveyor, and Matthew, now a father of three – father of three! he thought, with a sinking feeling of respectability – had neither the time nor inclination to prop up a bar with this group, discussing the fortunes of the various rugby clubs to which they almost certainly would belong. Those days, he said to himself, are past now, and in the past they must remain … He stopped. The words had entered his mind insidiously, the accompaniments of a musical meme, as some might call it. They were from Flower of Scotland which Bruce and his friends would sing so volubly at Murrayfield Stadium as they watched poor Scotland go down to another defeat in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament; they referred, of course, to the Battle of Bannockburn which took place, in the minds of so many, only yesterday (1314). Edward II, a bully like his father, had no business interfering with Scotland, and had got his just deserts. Naturally one would not wish to be thought to be making too much of that enmity between England and Scotland today – hence the words of the song – Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain, although one could, so easily, mischievously add the line … but we can still mention them – every now and again. It scanned rather well and it fitted the tune too. Matthew smiled. He would sing those words next time and see if anybody noticed them; he might even start something; after all, folk songs had to start with somebody.

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On that occasion, Matthew and Bruce had exchanged only a few words: “Must dash, sorry, let’s catch up some time soon,” and “Great idea. Cool. Why not?”

At the end of this brief and unimaginative conversation, Matthew had noticed that there was something ­unusual about Bruce’s appearance and, after a second or two, had realised that Bruce only had one eyebrow.

“What happened?”

“What do you mean what happened?”

“To your …” He pointed to his own, intact eyebrow.

Bruce shook his head. “Waxing accident,” he muttered, and had broken off to join his friends inside the bar. “Can’t tell you the whole story just now.”

He had been puzzled, wondering how a whole eyebrow might be pulled off by mistake. Was the entire face ­covered with wax in some awful re-­enactment of the making of a death mask? Or was it merely a question of eyebrow plucking that had gone awry, perhaps as a result of the over-enthusiasm of the eyebrow-plucker?

Now, as Matthew met Bruce in the Cumberland Bar, he saw that the missing eyebrow had grown.

“So,” said Bruce, as he came up to the table where Matthew was waiting for him. “How goes it, old fruit?”

Matthew did not like being addressed as old fruit, but he concealed his displeasure and gave Bruce a welcoming smile. “Not too bad.” And then, to add cliché to cliché, to pile Pelion upon Ossa, he added, “Can’t complain.”

Bruce signalled to the barman to pour him a pint of beer, and then sat down opposite Matthew. “Fatherhood treating you all right? Any more, or is it still three?”

“That’s it,” said Matthew.

“Have you been to the vet?” asked Bruce. “You know what I mean? Snip, snip.”

Matthew shook his head, grinning weakly. It was no business of Bruce’s, or of anybody else’s.

“It’s a real indignity,” Bruce said. “The humiliation that we undergo for women. What we do for them …”

Matthew thought that that particular burden fell disproportionately on woman. “But they’re the ones who have to …” he began. He trailed off. “It’s far more difficult for them …”

Bruce laughed. “Don’t believe the propaganda, Matty-boy. Women have it easy – dead easy. Who does all the work round here? Who has to slave away every day to keep some woman at home, drinking coffee and exchanging the latest goss?” He reached across the table to tap Matthew on the chest. “We do, Matthieu – it’s us. The chaps. We get a really raw deal.”

Matthew’s response was mild. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Most women work these days, don’t they? My accountant’s a woman. My lawyer’s a woman. My hairdresser is a woman. My …”

Bruce interrupted him. “All of the things you mentioned are women’s work,” he said. “Soppy stuff. I’m talking about real work.”

Matthew’s eyes widened. “Soppy stuff? Are you serious?”

“Never more serious,” said Bruce. “Girly stuff. Same difference. I’m talking about jobs that require a spot of the old testosterone. Flying a plane, for instance.” Matthew remembered something he had read about women pilots. “But there are plenty of female pilots,” he said. “I was reading the other day that they’re actually safer, because they take fewer risks.”

“Lies,” said Bruce immediately. He laughed, as if he had just remembered something. “Imagine what they’d be like at parking planes? Or reversing them?”

Matthew looked at the floor. He could not look at Bruce directly – at the en brosse haircut with its clove-scented gel and the opinions that seemed to 
suit that haircut so very well. “You shouldn’t say things like that,” he ­muttered.

Bruce stared at him. “Shouldn’t speak the truth? Is that what you’re saying to me, Matteo? More PC speech control? Is that it?”

Matthew decided to let the matter slip. “You can say what you like,” he said.

“Oh thank you!” said Bruce sarcastically. “Thanks for the permission.” He paused. “You’re like the rest of them, Matthew. You’ve been suppressed. You’ve let women run all over you, telling you what to do, what you can and cannot think. You may not have had the old two snips treatment but you’re well and truly neutered, you know.”

Matthew shook his head. “Let’s move on,” he said.

“You’re a eunuch now,” said Bruce. “God, it’s depressing. Women stick their noses into everything we say or do.”

Matthew saw his chance. “I was going to tell you about one of these women,” he said.