by Graham Stewart
(Download “The Nudge” as a PDF for reading off-line.)
Sheila was coming through from Glasgow and was going to stay at Paul’s place. He shared a top floor flat in a tenement near The Meadows. There was nothing going on between Paul and Sheila, according to Jamie: they were just mates. Robert had always liked Sheila but suspected she was out of his league. He never managed to say more than a few words to her.
Jamie and Robert met at The Diggers for a quick pint before walking along to Tolcross and stopping for a second pint in The Western. Then they cut across the Grassmarket to the Mound and down to Waverley, where Paul was waiting for Sheila.
“Train’s delayed. Some signalling problem,” said Paul. He had a woman with him. Pretty, too. Robert saw this as a sign that there was hope with Sheila after all. “This is Fiona,” said Paul.
“Hi,” said Fiona. She didn’t offer her hand or anything uncool, just lifted some fingers and let them separate in Robert’s direction. She repeated this for Jamie.
“Right,” said Jamie. “Fiona.”
Robert smiled. Jamie had a habit of making gnomic statements that sounded like the precursor to deep thought but was simply the best he could come up with. He was as bad around women as Robert was.
“So, how long?” said Robert.
“Thirty minutes. At least.”
“Time for a pint, then,” said Jamie.
“Suppose so,” said Paul. “Fiona?”
“Better than hanging around here,” she said.
Robert would have been happy to hang around in Waverley but he wasn’t going to admit to his love of trains and stations in present company. So they climbed the steps up past the old North British hotel and crossed Princes Street to the Cafe Royal.
Jamie and Robert waited in vain for Paul to offer to buy a round. The man was amazing. He just stood there, not even offering any excuse, just waiting to be bought a drink as if it was his right. Robert was about to crack first but was beaten to the bar by Fiona.
“What’ll it be?” said Fiona. She didn’t quite look at Robert but he sensed she was talking to him.
“Me and Jamie’ll have the eighty shilling. Thanks.”
“Four eighty shillings,” said Fiona. She wasn’t getting her sums wrong with Robert but now giving her order to the barman who had come round the bar to serve her.
Jamie and Paul had found seats on the other side of the bar. Robert felt he should try to make conversation, if only for practice before Sheila got here. “Known Paul long?”
Fiona turned towards him and smiled. He felt liked he’d cracked a joke in a foreign language by mistake.
“Good smalltalk,” she said. “No, not long. A few days. Met at a party last week-end.”
“Right,” said Robert.
“Known Paul long,” said Fiona. She shook her head and Robert wondered why this was so hard.
“Years, actually. School. From the start.” Robert wondered if he would ever be able to speak to a woman other that his mother in complete sentences.
Fiona picked up two of the sleeves of beer. Robert noticed with a quick surge of lust how small her hands were. This disconcerted him, as he could honestly attest to the fact that hand size had never, ever, featured in his sexual fantasies. He picked up the other two beers and followed Fiona around the bar to where Paul and Jamie sat.
The Cafe Royal had an oyster bar attached and had the sound and look of a posher place than it was. It was actually just a fairly normal pub but beautifully decorated with picture tiles and huge mirrors. The bar itself was in the centre of the drinking room, like a boat to which the drinkers swam across the wooden floorboards of the pub. There were stools against the bar and booths down one side of the room. The pub’s large windows were all glazed with opaque glass decorated with swirls. In short, it was one of Edinburgh’s better looking places to get drunk.
Robert handed Jamie his beer and sat down. Paul edged along the bench and Fiona sat next to him, opposite Robert. Paul and Jamie were talking football, a subject Robert tried to avoid when with them. They were both Hibs fans. He looked across at Fiona and was pleased to see she was looking at him.
“At the risk of receiving low marks again for my smalltalk,” he said. “What do you do?”
Fiona smiled and nodded twice. Robert wasn’t sure whether she was laughing at the question or at his reference to her early mockery.
“Student,” she said.
“Ah,” said Robert. He waited. He really didn’t want to ask what she was studying. Even he had limits to which he refused to sink.
“Well done,” said Fiona. She smiled again. “Medicine. Final year.”
Robert picked up his beer and gestured in a silent toast before taking a long pull of the creamy eighty shillings. He was definitely thirsty but suddenly felt that the next thing he said might actually determine the rest of his life. Fiona, with her small hands holding her beer, suddenly seemed to be one of the most attractive women he’d met in years. Ever. And it couldn’t be the drink. This was only the start of his third pint and he knew from past experience that the ugly bus only came after the fourth.
He made elaborate work of replacing his glass on the table and then realised that Jamie and Paul were both silent now. He looked quickly and saw that Paul was turning his head towards Fiona. With a sense of panic, he knew that Paul was about to speak and Robert’s chance would be gone. He needed to say something now.
“Wow,” he said.
Fiona looked at him. He was sure he could read disappointment in her eyes. “I guess,” she said.
“What’s wow?” said Paul.
“I was just telling your friend that I was doing medicine.”
Your friend, thought Robert. She had forgotten his name already.
“You can always rely on Robert for the punchy response,” said Jamie.
“Fuck off,” said Robert.
“Case in point,” said Jamie.
And so it went. But at least Jamie and Paul were no longer talking about the Hibs. After making fun a little more at Robert’s expense, however, the conversation came to a close and there seemed little inclination on anyone’s part to reignite it. It was Fiona who broke first.
“So Sheila’s an old mate?”
Paul nodded. Jamie nodded. Robert shook his head.
“From uni,” said Paul. “Me and Jamie. Robert went somewhere posher.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Robert.
“Oh?” said Fiona.
Robert decided to force Fiona to ask. Childish but after almost three pints, he felt it was justified. But a second or two passed and she said nothing. Then she turned to Paul.
“And now she lives in Glasgow?” she said.
“Yes. We keep in touch and try to see each other every month.” Paul took another sip of his beer and looked at Jamie. Jamie took the hint.
“We’ve always done things together. Holidays, that sort of thing. When she moved to Glasgow, we didn’t want to use that as an excuse to break up the gang.”
Fiona looked at Robert and smiled at him. He saw immediately that she had deliberately avoided asking the obvious question before. “And now you have a new gang member,” she said.
“My shout,” said Paul. Fiona shuffled off the bench and let Paul out. “Same again?”
Robert and Jamie were a bit taken aback by the fact that Paul was off to the bar so they nodded. Neither wanted to crack a joke that might ruin the moment. Robert realised that Paul was trying to avoid discussing Sheila with Fiona. This was interesting news. Perhaps even good news, although Robert was not quite sure yet how it might affect him.
“So, what’s she like, this Sheila?” Fiona was looking at Robert. “I’m not asking Paul andJamie because they’re old mates. You’ll be more honest.”
Jamie laughed. Robert wasn’t sure whether he was snorting in derision at Fiona’s suggestion of his honesty or at the brazen attempt to see if she needed to be jealous of the relationship between Sheila and Paul.
“Well, I think she’s great. Funny, beautiful, and smart. If I’d known Sheila was going to have been at Aberdeen with these guys, I would have gone there myself.” Robert picked up his glass when he finished and drained the last inch of his beer. Then he picked up Jamie’s empty and stood up and carried the glasses up to the bar and stood next to Paul.
“Slow service tonight,” said Paul. “Only one guy on at the moment.”
“Right,” said Robert. He looked up at the clock on the far wall. “What time are we heading back to the station?”
“Och, I’ll nip down in a while and see what’s what with the trains. No point in us all going down.”
“That may not play too well with Fiona,” said Robert.
Paul looked at him and smiled. “Too bad,” he said. “I think Fiona might have the wrong idea about us.”
“You and Sheila or you and Fiona?”
“About me and her. She’s nice enough but . . . .”
“Right,” said Robert.
Robert turned and leaned his back against the bar and looked back at Fiona and Jamie while Paul ordered the drinks from the hard-pressed barman. Jamie and Fiona seemed to be sitting in silence and Fiona was sitting looking down at her small hands. He felt a wave of compassion for her. She was an outsider waiting to be welcomed into a group whose rules and habits she didn’t comprehend.
Paul drank his pint quickly. He had almost drained it before Fiona had shuffled up the bench to let him sit down again.
“Do you want me to come with you?” said Fiona,
“No, don’t bother. Stay here and make sure these guys don’t get lashed before I get back.”
Paul bent down and clumsily pecked the top of Fiona’s head. He didn’t look at Robert or Jamie as he left.
“So, you’re stuck with us, then,” said Jamie.
Fiona nodded but didn’t smile. Robert felt he should say something. Suggest something. But he picked up his beer instead.
Along from their booth a fruit machine clacked and whirred and flashed. Robert nudged Jamie and nodded at the machine, which was unoccupied.
“Let’s do it,” said Jamie.
“Do what?” said Fiona.
“Come on.” Jamie half pushed Robert from the booth and Robert had to steady his drink to stop the beer sloshing onto the table.
“Christ, Jamie,” said Robert.
“Before some greedy fucker gets on it.”
Fiona had now turned and seen the machine. “You’re joking,” she said.
Jamie was already standing in front of it and bringing out a handful of change from his pocket.
Robert shrugged apologetically at Fiona. “It’s his thing,” he said.
“Sad bastard or what?”
“I suppose.” Robert stood for a moment and then began to walk off to join Jamie.
“Not you as well?” said Fiona.
“Shit,” she said. But she stood up and smiled at Robert. “Well, I’m not sitting there on my own and waiting for some half-drunk ned to try and chat me up.”
“Good call,” said Robert and they walked over to join Jamie.
Someone else was already at Jamie’s side. He was a wee guy – about Fiona’s height – and with his shirt collar worn outside his jacket. His slick combed hair gave him a boyish look but his face was grim and aged, with a small scar above one eyebrow. Robert instinctively went to stand at the other side of Jamie. Fiona followed him there.
Jamie sensed their arrival. “Where you been?”
Robert knew this required no answer, so settled in to watch Jamie’s mastery over shuffle and hold buttons. For a game of chance, Jamie had the knack of making it look skillful. He watched as lights flashed, as buzzers buzzed, as reels shunted and stopped and, occasionally – very occasionally – as coins dropped into the open mouth that gaped at them in mockery beneath the alluring electrics of the machine.
Their companion to Jamie’s left offered occasional grunts and words of encouragement. “Aye,” he said. Or “Push it”. Robert thought it was “push it” but the man’s accent was very broad and he may have been quite drunk. Even in his encouragement of Jamie, however, Robert sensed some menace. Jamie was too involved in his playing to notice anything. It was usually Robert’s role to offer Jamie support in the form of cynical observation and gentle mockery and sarcasm. Wary of their audience, he started slowly, commenting at first on the effeminate way Jamie pressed a hold button.
It was an old routine between them. Robert’s only interest in fruit machines was in commenting on Jamie’s performance. Jamie returned the favour whenever Robert had a girlfriend. This meant that Robert did vastly more than his fair share of taunting and commenting.
Robert quickly managed to ignore the presence of Fiona and the wee man and was soon into his abusive stride. Jamie smiled and nodded between bursts of button-pushing frenzy.
Then it was over. A final juggering of the machine and a larger than usual spew of coins hit the plastic underlip of the gaping mouth. Jamie scooped up the coins and into his pockets.
“That’ll do,” said Jamie.
“Aye,” said the wee man.
Robert exchanged a quick look with Jamie, who crossed his eyes slightly. This was code for mocking opportunities ahead. Jamie stepped aside from the machine and the wee man moved to stand in front of it. Jamie now stood where the man had stood previously and Fiona and Robert remained on the right of the machine. Fiona looked at Robert. She was obviously wondering why they were still there.
The wee man started to play.
“I need another drink if I’m going to watch more of this,” said Fiona.
The man turned to her. His hand was poised above the coin slot, just about to drop some money to feed the machine. “Dinnae stay on ma account, hen,” he said.
Fiona looked at him without smiling and then turned to Robert. “Same again? Jamie?” When they had accepted her offer, she walked up to the bar.
Robert wasn’t sure why they were still by the machine. Jamie did have a fascination with them that Robert deemed far from healthy but he assumed that Jamie was following some chivalric code of fruit machine players; if someone watched you and offered support, then you did the same when they played. Robert just wanted Paul and Sheila to arrive so they go on somewhere Robert might have a chance of sitting next to Sheila for a while. He felt he had now drunk just the right amount to be able to be witty and charming instead of his usual silent and grinning.
The man began to play and Robert, on auto-pilot after watching Jamie, began to make the comments he would have made had Jamie still be playing. His heart wasn’t really in it but he didn’t know how to stand and watch a man he didn’t know doing something he couldn’t care about without making silly remarks. He glimpsed Jamie shaking his head but Fiona was behind him with the drinks before he could focus and see what Jamie was trying to suggest.
“Can we no go and sit down?” said Fiona.
“Please do,” said the man.
“In a bit,” said Robert. He looked across at Jamie. Jamie placed his finger to his lips.
“Is this a man only zone, then?” said Fiona. She was talking to the wee man’s back.
The man reached up and put more coins in the machine. Then he half turned. “Piss aff.”
“Hey,” said Robert. It escaped his mouth before he gave it a thought. Robert was not confrontational.
This time the man turned all the way round. “Hey, what?” he said.
“Why did you speak to her like that?”
The man turned back to the machine and slapped a hold on the three reels.
Fiona edged closer to Robert. She leaned forward so that she could be clear who she was talking to. “You stood there when we were playing and we said nothing. What’s your problem?”
The man let his head fall slightly and he pressed the machine’s start button. He looked straight at the reels as he spoke. “My problem is you. All of you. Just piss aff. I didn’t want tae watch yous lot. I just wanted to get on the machine.”
“Charming,” said Fiona.
“Let’s go get a drink,” said Jamie.
“Aye, take your pals away, soft boy, and let me play in peace,” said the man.
“Soft boy?” said Robert.
“I’ve got a drink,” said Fiona.
“Come on,” said Jamie. He left Robert and Fiona and walked towards the bar.
The man turned round. “Take Robert away before he gets hurt. Fiona.”
Robert took a step backwards but Fiona grabbed his arm. “We’ll go when we want to go. You don’t own the machine, the pub, or this space.”
The wee man looked at her and then at Robert. With his left hand he reached behind him and pressed the cash button on the machine. Coins fell into its mouth. He turned and picked them up and put them in his pocket. For a moment, Robert thought that Fiona’s reckless challenge had won. But then we man spoke. “I’m away for a piss. We’ll sort this out when I get back. Outside. You and me, Robert.” He swung his gaze across Robert and Fiona. He took a step towards Fiona, who gave a small start and stepped out of the way. The wee man smiled. “See yous creeps efter.” Then he passed Fiona and headed off to the loos.
Fiona looked at Robert. “Did he really just say that?”
“He did,” said Robert.
“I’m sorry. I should have let it go. I forgot the wee man syndrome.”
“I was as bad.”
“So, what now?”
“At the risk of sounding unmanly, I’m not sure I want to face him on his return,” said Robert.
Fiona smiled. “I think you’re right. And I also think it’s more manly to admit that.”
Robert nodded. Jamie watched as they approached him at the bar.
“Proper Embro psycho,” said Jamie. “I tried to warn you.”
“Is that what you were doing? Telling me to shut up would have worked better,” said Robert. “Anyway, he’s peeing and then coming back to give me a doing.”
“You deserve it,” said Jamie.
“That’s beside the point. I don’t want it.”
“So, drink up before his bladder runs dry and we can scoot out of here.”
“Chicken,” said Jamie.
“He’s not chicken,” said Fiona. “Just sensible. And I think that horrible wee ned would like to have a shot at hitting me, too.”
“Let’s go.” Jamie put his almost empty glass on the bar and the three of them headed for the door furthest from the stairs down to the loos. Robert was tempted to look back to see if the wee man was reappearing but Fiona suddenly took hold of his hand and all thoughts of that immediately evaporated.
The first grains of darkness were filling the air as they left the pub. Robert’s happiness soared. The adrenaline of the short and petty confrontation with the wee ned, followed by the physical pressure of Fiona’s hand in his suddenly made this one of his best ever nights out on the town with Jamie. With his free hand he pushed Jamie’s back. “You and your fucking machines,” he said.
“Don’t blame me. I was just playing the thing.”
“Sure,” said Robert.
“It’s not my fault if my talent attracts the wrong sort of admirer.” He turned to smile at Robert and then saw that Fiona was holding his hand. “Oh,” he said. Then he looked up and over their shoulders towards the pub. “Shite, it’s him. Run.” Jamie turned away from them and started to sprint towards Princes Street.
Fiona let out a small squeal and Robert followed Jamie’s lead by setting off quickly in pursuit of his friend. He didn’t let go of Fiona’s hand, so he couldn’t run as fast as he wanted to. Jamie reached the corner of a building and disappeared round it. When Robert and Fiona turned the corner themselves, Jamie was standing there, hands on his sides smiling at them.
“Enjoy the run?”
“Bastard,” said Robert.
“What?” said Fiona.
Robert turned her round. “Look. Listen.”
“Nobody’s coming,” said Fiona.
“No,” said Robert.
“No,” said Jamie. “But to be fair, he might have peeked out and now we’re long gone. Robert’s safe.”
“It was definitely you and your smart mouth that pissed him off,” said Jamie.
“He didn’t seem to think much of women, either,” said Fiona.
Jamie nodded. “Aye, well, we’re best off out of it.”
“So what now? Find Paul and Sheila?” said Robert.
They crossed to the steps down to Waverley Station. Fiona held onto Robert’s left hand and Jamie walked on Robert’s right. Robert and Jamie exchanged a look and Jamie nodded and looked impressed. When they got to the walkway above the station, they looked down to the platforms and saw Paul standing looking up at the arrivals board.
“I’ll nip down and see what’s what,” said Jamie. “You wait here. No point in us all going.”
Robert didn’t argue and he was pleased that Fiona seemed to show no desire to join Paul.
They watched as Jamie walked up to Paul and spoke to him. Paul and Jamie both turned to look up to the walkway and Paul raised his hand in greeting. Fiona and Robert waved back. Jamie touched Paul’s arm and then walked back to the steps and climbed back up to where Robert and Fiona waited.
“Her train’s due in about ten minutes. I said I’ll wait with him. You two go on and get a round in.”
“Where?” said Robert.
“The Half Way?”
“Fine,” said Robert. “See you in a while.”
Jamie left them and went back down to the concourse.
Robert looked at Fiona. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay with Paul?”
Fiona squeezed his hand. “I’m sure. Come on,” she said.
They walked along the walkway and past the steps down to the platform from which Robert used to catch the train to university. Or almost university because they needed to get taxis from the nearest station into the town itself, thanks to Beeching’s cuts.
At the station exit, Fiona stopped and looked across at Cockburn Street and then back at Robert.
“Do you really want any more to drink?”
“No. I think I’ve had enough,” said Robert. “You?”
“No. Far too much, actually,” said Fiona.
“Oh,” said Robert. He was scared where this might be leading and failed to keep the disappointment from his voice.
Fiona laughed. “I don’t mean that,” she said. And she leaned close to him and put her head against his chest and he smelled the scent of her hair and rested his chin against the top of her head. She stepped back a little and turned her face upwards. “Can I have my kiss now?”
He tried to think of a witty response but was quite grateful when he decided simply to let his head drop towards hers and bring his mouth to her mouth.
[cover image adapted from "Fruit Machine" by Garry Knight]