‘Is it really true that everybody meets on line?” asked Katie. “I wonder. George and I didn’t. We met when …”
George gave her a discouraging look, intercepted by Stuart, who felt pleased. They don’t get on all that well, he thought. And then he said to himself, She doesn’t really like him. That possibility gave him considerable pleasure. Of course she didn’t like him – she was interested in poetry and vegetarian cooking and he was interested in … in what? Money? Cars, probably. Rugby? Not poetry; definitely not poetry.
“Something funny?” asked Tina.
“I was just thinking,” said Graeme. “You remember that guy who went to Prague for the weekend? The one who used to work for the Bank of Scotland?”
Tina frowned. “The one with the ears?”
“He used to play rugby,” explained Graeme. “In the scrum. He had a cauliflower ear. No, not him. He worked for that whisky company. This one was something to do with commercial mortgages. Anyway, him: he went to Prague on a stag weekend – somebody was getting married. And he came back with a Czech fiancée – that Monday, that actual Monday. He went on Friday and came back with her on Monday.”
“He’d never met her before?” asked Vicki.
“Did she speak English?” asked Katie.
“A bit. Not much, but a bit. Enough to say I do. And they were married a couple of weeks later. That was it.”
Katie shook her head. “They’re still together?”
“Yes. They’re fine.”
Stuart listened, and tackled his momos as he did so. “These are really delicious,” he said. “And the sauce … Boy, it’s good.”
Katie beamed. “I’m glad you like it.”
“What’s in it?” asked Stuart.
Katie was about to tell him, but Graeme had more to say. “There was this woman,” he said. “She was called Sam, I seem to remember. Short for Samantha. She was related to somebody who worked for the BBC. I forget who. Anyway, this woman, Samantha Something-or-other, went to Albania. You can go there these days – it used to be closed, but now you can go there on holiday. It’s still a bit grim, apparently, but bits of it are OK if you don’t have great eyesight. Anyway, she went there with a girlfriend and they stayed in some beach resort. But they also went for drives up in the mountains, and apparently it’s pretty primitive there. Dirt poor in places.”
“They had bad luck,” said George. “That ghastly dictator. What was his name?”
“Hoxha,” said Graeme. “Sounded like a lung complaint.”
“Never trust a politician who sounds like a lung complaint,” said Tina.
George smiled. “And their last king was called King Zog, you know. King Zog of Albania. He had four or five sisters, I think, and he dressed them all in naval uniforms. They sat on sofas in their naval uniforms and had their photographs taken.”
“Strange,” said Vicki.
Graeme agreed. “Yes, strange. But anyway, these two women drove into some village somewhere in the sticks and they had a cup of coffee in the local café. It was pretty basic – run by a chap with a big moustache. Zorba-type. And he had a brother who helped him in the café, but who only had one leg.”
“There was somebody in the café who spoke English – the local teacher. He struck up a conversation with them and explained that the brother with one leg was too poor to get a proper artificial leg. He had been given a peg leg at the local clinic, but he hadn’t got on too well with that and it irritated the stump. It was too heavy, I think. So he had to get by without.”
“This woman felt really sorry for him. She couldn’t say anything to him because she had no Albanian and he didn’t have a word of English. But apparently she kissed him on the cheek, and he was pretty chuffed. Then the person who spoke English asked if they could take him back to their place down on the coast as there was an Italian doctor there who might be able to help him. They agreed.”
“Is this going to end well?” asked Vicki. “I have a feeling that it won’t.”
“Wait and see,” said Graeme. “They took him, and he went to this Italian doctor down at sea level. But the doctor said he couldn’t do anything because Albanian artificial legs are pretty useless and imported ones cost thousands and have to be fitted by special technicians. There were none of those in Albania because they had all been persecuted for one reason or another. So the end result was that nobody could do much for him inside the country.”
“In the meantime,” Graeme continued, “this woman was falling in love with this character with one leg. After a few days she asked him whether he would come back to Coatbridge with her – she lived over there, you see, where her father had a pub.”
“This Albanian guy with one leg didn’t require much persuading. He knew a good deal when he saw it. Any Albanian who gets the chance of marrying an American or a Brit or somebody like that will jump at the chance. Albania’s a dump, and Coatbridge would be a distinct improvement. So this Albanian got ready for the trip to Scotland. He made arrangements pronto to settle his affairs in Albania and was there at the airport, balancing on his one leg and holding a walking stick in the other, ready to go off to Scotland for a new life.”
“Good,” said Katie. “that sounds like a happy ending. I was worried it was going to be rather different.”
“Well,” said Graeme. “Listen to this: they got back and the first thing that she did was take him to an artificial-limb-maker and get him measured up. She had a legacy of seven thousand pounds from her grandmother, and she used this to order this Albanian a state-of-the-art new leg. It did everything, more or less, and he was pretty pleased.”
“It took a month to make, but when it was ready it was obviously well worth it. He was really pleased and said to her, ‘Me dancing now. Big time dancing.’
“So the moment he had mastered his new leg, he hopped on a bus and went to a dance in Glasgow. And because of the new leg being so well-made and so responsive, he soon developed quite a following as a nifty ballroom dancer. And not long after, he met a new woman and ran off with her. On his new artificial leg that that original woman had bought for him.”
There was silence. Then Vicki said, “I find that story really sad.”
“For her?” asked Stuart.
“Yes,” said Vicki. “She bought him a leg and he used it to run away from her. How sad is that?”
“Very sad,” said Graeme. But he did not conceal his amusement.
Katie looked thoughtful. “The moral?”
Graeme shrugged. “Don’t buy an artificial leg for somebody if there’s the slightest chance of their running away from you on their new leg.”
Stuart raised an eyebrow. “It shows a lack of gratitude, if you ask me.” He looked at his empty plate and said to Katie, “Is that the end of the momos?”
She shook her head. “Come with me into the kitchen,” she said. “Bring your plate. I’ll help you.”
He followed her into the kitchen. The conversation at the table swelled in volume. Graeme had said something amusing, and Tina had joined in with a story of her own.
In the kitchen, Katie turned to face him. “Well?” she said. “What do you think?”
“No, of course not,” Katie chided him. “Of Vicki.”
Stuart frowned. “She’s fine.”
“I can tell she likes you,” said Katie.
Stuart closed his eyes. This was entirely wrong. He opened his eyes and stared down, mutely, at his Portuguese shoes.