Once the house move was completed, Catriona’s oldest and best Scottish friends, two of them, came to stay for a week. Now that Catriona lives in France they see each other but infrequently.
A seven-day female catch-up feast did not appeal to me. Neither would a shadowy male presence about the house appeal much to them, I imagined. An unenlightened point of view, perhaps. But gender is more sharply defined in Scotland than south of the border. The lassies are proud of their lads’ outrageous, even ludicrous, masculinity, but they sympathise with each other more. Scottish gender begs to differ. So I planned to bugger off back to England the day after they arrived and leave them to it. The three of them had lots to get through, including respectively a death, a divorce and a desertion. And that was just for starters.
The pal whose husband has run off with another woman has been off her grub for six months. She has lost about half of her body weight and developed a chronic digestive problem. This was the subject under discussion when I blundered out on to the terrace where they were gathered around the table for elevenses on the first morning after their arrival. Had I any advice to give, said one of these three glamorous, tragic women, to someone wanting to increase their own gut flora? The question surprised me. Of the three, one is a full-time nurse, another a former practice nurse of 20 years’ experience. So why ask me? Perhaps asking a bloke a technical question the moment he appears on the scene is the age-old Scottish lassies’ technique for diverting the masculine mind away from its customary channels of drink, football and violence and giving him the opportunity to pontificate impressively on something about which he knows nothing. Meanwhile, the lassies can sit back, take a moment to digest or collect their thoughts, light a fag, take a sip, and enjoy the view.
If it was a technique, I was strangely helpless against it. ‘Well,’ I said, mounting the podium. ‘If you’re asking me, buy the most expensive probiotic you can afford, eat healthily and give up the piss for a fortnight.’ Then I noticed the stagey nods from the nurse and the former nurse, and I realised they had been ganging up on the incredible shrinking woman and were trying to persuade her, for the sake of her health, to put a bit of weight back on. She was facing them down implacably, I now noticed. She knew her own mind and wasn’t to be deflected. She liked being thin. And when it came right down to it, ill health was a small price to pay.
That evening I walked down the hill into the village after a drink with the foreign correspondent and found the three of them sitting at a table outside the new wine bar. They looked pleased to see me. I asked if I might join them. ‘What’s your chat like?’ said Catriona. This is the lassies’ standard riposte to importunate males asking to join them. They must at least be diverting. The foreign correspondent and I had just seen off the best part of a bottle of Bombay. My answer was to take a photo of their six sandalled feet under the table, my creative inspiration being the various striking colours with which their toenails were painted.
I was permitted to sit. Their chat was funny, so I kept mine in reserve. The one who hadn’t eaten for six months told us that the late, great Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone had once drunk champagne from her stiletto-heeled shoe at the Rogano oyster bar in Glasgow’s west end. Beat that! How we laughed. With renewed respect for her, I formally apologised for voicing an opinion during elevenses about her gut flora. I hadn’t realised that I was being invited to join a referendum, I said. Her face received this with a peculiar mixture of sadness and defiance. She looked down through her thin thighs at her feet. Of the three sets of coloured toenails under the table, hers were the ones painted a rich coral.
The subject was adroitly changed to bras and bra sizes. The subject of my conversation with the foreign correspondent had been the first Chechen war, which he had covered from the Chechen side. Then we moved on to clothes, and the one who hadn’t eaten for six months played her unanswerable trump card, which was that she was now able to wear clothes she had last worn 30 years ago. Frankly envious, and wondering whether this wasn’t indeed worth dying for, one of the nurses decided it was time to divert the male with a technical question: ‘Is it this weekend that the clocks go forward,’ she said, ‘or is it back?’