Seated at the bar in the Wally Dug, Bruce listened intently as his old friend from Morrison’s Academy days, Gav Macfadzean, told him the news that he thought he would find “seriously interesting”.
“Right, when Sally told me that this girl had been asking who you were, I said: so, who is she? Do you know her?” Gav paused. “You know what it’s like at those parties? A bit of a scrum. You spend a lot of time talking to people you don’t really know.”
Bruce nodded. “You end up shouting. And the next day you’re hoarse.”
“Tell me about it,” said Gav. He smiled. “You remember that cosmic party that Shuggie gave when we were students? Remember it? In Tollcross. Bob and Fridgie were there, I think, and we …”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “We broke things. Yes, I remember.”
“That was some party,” said Gav.
“And then, when we went on the rugby tour of Ireland,” Bruce said. “Boy, oh boy …”
“Who could forget that? Remember that guy down in Limerick who had that muckle great house and that pack of dogs? Chap with a great conk of a nose. Some sort of Irish earl or lord or something. Remember him? And he was the patron or chairman, or something, of the local rugby club and he invited us all out to his place after the game.”
Bruce smiled at the memory. “And we played rugby in his library? We used that old globe as the ball? Remember? Not that he minded. The Irish are like that. They don’t really mind.”
“Great people,” said Gav. “And he had that Brazilian girl working in the kitchen Remember her? She had come to Ireland to learn English and had ended up working in the kitchen and looking after their goats. Remember the goats? Johnny Ferguson tried to ride on one of the big ones and got butted in the stomach. Stupid git.”
“He was a good prop, though,” Bruce mused.
“Yeah, sure. But he was pretty thick, wasn’t he? Went down to that university just outside Newcastle where they send all the thickos. Can you remember its name?”
Bruce shook his head. “Durham?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Gav. “Durham’s the place for debbie girls. This other place is just for thicko men. They do a lot of agriculture degrees. Sports sciences – that’s another one for the thickos. You can actually study golf somewhere. Did you know that? You get a place on the course as long as you can count up to eighteen. The number of holes in a course, you see. Count up to nineteen and you get a scholarship. That’s all they ask. No Highers or anything like that.”
“Amazing,” said Bruce. He took a swig of his beer. “But what about this girl?”
“The one Sally saw at the party you were talking about.”
“Oh yes, that girl. Well, Sally actually knows her and told me all about her. Her name’s Jenny, and she’s a looker, I’m telling you.”
Bruce waited. There were plenty of lookers. Edinburgh was crawling with lookers, he thought.
“Her old man’s called Harry. He’s got a place near Peebles. And one somewhere up in teuchter-territory – Invernesshire, I think. He’s loaded.”
“He has a whole stretch of some salmon river up north.”
Bruce shrugged. “There are hardly any salmon these days. I was reading somewhere that on one of those rivers they caught just one last year. One fish.”
“That’s the Russians,” said Gav. “The Russians and the Spanish. They’re taking the fish out at sea. Anyway, this Jenny’s old man is the real McCoy.”
Bruce was cool. “Oh yes?”
“Yes. Seriously. Big time, I tell you.”
Bruce explained that he was not sure.
“But she wants to meet you,” said Gav. “How can you say no in these circumstances?”
For a short while Bruce said nothing. Then he asked about the place near Peebles. What was it like?
“It’s an estate,” Gav said. “Not far from Traquair – you know that place? Not far from there. They’ve got a big pheasant shoot, you know. And their place up in Inverness is massive. Twenty-eight thousand acres, somebody said.”
Bruce took this in. “So why hasn’t she got a boyfriend?” he asked.
“She did have one,” said Gav. “He left her.”
“Who can tell? People leave one another. They get fed up with somebody’s face and they quit. You can’t blame them sometimes.” Gav paused. “But that isn’t the point. The point, Bruce-o is that she’s seen you and likes the look of you. She wants to meet you. What have you got to lose?”
“Well, put that way – nothing, I suppose.”
“And if you can’t stand her, well, you make an excuse and leave it at that. No harm done. You must have dumped plenty of women in your time.”
Bruce grinned. “My quota,” he said.
Gav laughed at the joke. Some things never changed: they were back at school together in their final year. My quota. Then he said, “And what about you? Have you ever been dumped?”
Bruce shook his head. “Me? No. I do the dumping, not them. You know how it is.”
Gave looked doubtful. “Funny, that. I heard from Fridgie that that Australian dame had given you the old heave-ho. For some extreme sports guy up on Skye.”
Bruce made a dismissive gesture. “We split up,” he said. “Mutual consent.”
“She wanted me back,” Bruce continued. “I said: ‘You had your chance, girl. Too late.’ Great gnashing of teeth. Sobs. Danced around me with no clothes on. The works. But no, I’d made up my mind.”
“Her loss,” said Gav.
Bruce drained his glass of the last of his beer. In the brewer’s mirror on the wall behind him, he caught sight of himself. The light was just right, he thought; it made him look even better than unusual. But then he thought: looks don’t last forever. When he looked in the mirror in five, ten years’ time, what would he see? He would still be handsome, of course, but handsome old. And there was nothing more tragic, Bruce thought, than handsome old. You were reminded by handsome old of what had been, and was no more; handsome old spoke of the past, of loss, of what was now gone. Handsome old was the bitty glory of the Calton Hill and the faded splendour of those old Edinburgh hotels, still dignified old matrons in spite of attempts to rejuvenate them with swanky new names. People and buildings, thought Bruce, are much the same, when it came down to it. The thought was a disturbing one. You are at a crossroads …
Gav had thought of something else. “And another thing,” he said. “Her old man, Harry Whatever – he owns a distillery.”
Bruce looked up sharply. “Owns it?”
“Yes. The whole lot. It’s been in the family for yonks. They make a rather good single malt.”
Bruce looked back at the mirror. A distillery. Single malt. These things opened doors. Good seats at Murrayfield. Drinks in the Scottish Rugby Union boardroom – with the players. Highland Cathedral. The works.
“Next week?” he said to Gav.