“Scotland!?” Jekka inquires in her Nashville lilt, still a bit evident after all those years in New York. But maybe it’s just me.
“That’s what I said,” I say.
“Christ, woman. That’s a little random.”
“Johnny’s here. My third cousin? I’m staying with him.”
“I thought he was Irish.”
“He is. He just lives in Scotland.”
“He wanted to get away from Ireland, this was as far as he got.”
Jekka laughs. “Your family is so weird.”
“So you’ve been in Scotland this whole time?”
“No, I was in Ireland for a few days.”
“Just seeing Dublin. I made Johnny come meet me there, show me around. We went up north, too.”
“No, still in the Republic, just near the border. You know, where ‘The Butcher Boy’ took place.”
“You saw the town ‘The Butcher Boy’ was filmed in?”
“Yeah, it was sweet. Then we came here.”
“So what have you been doing? What are you doing?”
“Not much. Just hanging out.”
“You didn’t think to call? Everyone’s like, where’s Vanya? I’m supposed to know, I guess.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Should I tell them where you’re at?”
“No. Say you talked to me, but that I wouldn’t tell you where I was.”
I pause. “Er…”
“Ok, ok. God you’re so evasive. So what’s the deal?”
“You just took off.”
“Yeah, I was getting sick of it.”
“All of it.”
“Oh… Did you tell your boss?”
I laugh humorlessly. “Nah. I sort of gave up on having a job when I get back. If I get back.”
“That’s what I said,” I say.
I make it quick. Jekka wants my number; I lie, say it’s in transition. Say I’ll call back soon, which may or may not be a lie, I don’t know. All this fuss—she makes me almost regret I called. I mean, Christ, you’d think I’d been gone a month, it’s only been three weeks. I wasn’t even going to call, but I figured, if she took off without a word, I’d want to know. Not anyone else so much, but her, yea. It kinda sucks, having someone like that, wherever you go, you’re still sort of attached to them. It’s a pain in the ass. It’s nice in a way, you always feel connected, to something. I didn’t always have that. I used to just go all over the place, and no one knew. I won’t get all sorry for myself and say no one cared, but they were all used to it, they didn’t bother. There’s something very liberating about that. But then I think, what if something happened? Oh sure, nothing did, but it could have. An accident, an attack, something. A young woman on her own in a savage world and all that. Now I know everything will be ok. I have Jekka’s info In Case Of An Emergency in my wallet. Before, I could have been killed and it would have been weeks before they’d’ve traced down a next of kin. The address on my state ID is at least two addresses ago. I don’t think I even get mail forwarded from them anymore.
But it’s more than that. It’s a spiritual thing, sort of, even if it’s not a spiritual relationship, really. It’s like, wherever I go, there’s always someone thinking of me, someone who knows where I’m at, who’s looking up at the same stars I am. Except now, the stars don’t come out at the same time.
I look around the big empty flat, slowly pondering my next move. I left out the part to Jekka about Johnny never being home. He’s always at work, or else at his girlfriend’s. Which is fine, I like having the place to myself, except I don’t know another soul around here. It gets pretty boring. Scottish TV sucks. Five channels, and no “Law & Order.” I saw an ad for it once, but it wasn’t on when it said it would be. They lie. Everything’s a bad documentary or a bad soap opera (“Coronation Street”?, hello), and everything starts at random times, 9:35 or 1:17 or some shit. And some channels have commercials in the shows and some only in between separate shows. I can’t believe they make you pay for this crap. The taxes in this country are all over the place. You know, at first I thought they didn’t have sales tax, but then Johnny told me that they do, they just include it, no one really knows how much it is, they don’t care, they don’t want to know. Weird. I like to know just how much the government gets when they’re fucking me over. But that’s just me.
I notice myself begin to bite my nails and know I’ve got to get out. Buy a pack of cigarettes. Maybe I’ll go to the pub. I went to this one a few nights ago, it’s called Harlem. Harlem! What a joke. A classy sports bar, the only thing even remotely “Harlem” about it are the silhouette paintings of old blues and jazz musicians—Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Dinah Washington. Other than that it could be an uptown pub-and-lounge. They must have misunderstood “uptown.” All the fake American stuff in this town cracks me up. I had to hold in my laughter when I went into the New York Sandwich Shop and saw all the sandwich names—the Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Central Park, the Double Skyscraper (you’d think they’d change that after Nine Eleven, but no). Nothing after Queens, though. My hidden smirking increased when I got my egg and sausage on “brown bread”—egg salad and sliced-up sausage links on wheat. That must have been my first week here. You do get used to it, of course. Especially when you’re not so much a tourist as a scout, looking for a replacement home. Jekka found her replacement home in New York pretty quickly, I only wish my quest could be that easy. Three weeks here and I’m almost positive this is not the place for me. And Ireland’s too expensive. The economy boom—mostly because of the computer companies—over the last few years has not been good to the little people, so I’ve heard.
But it’s pretty nice, this Harlem. I still have to remember that going to a pub on your own is ok in the UK, you don’t have to feel guilty or like a lush, like in my own wonderfully pseudo-Puritanical country. Here, everyone’s a lush, and no one feels guilty. They have good music, the TVs are always on mute, and I chatted with the bartender for a bit, she seemed nice, and I think she said she was next on tonight.
I grab my jacket—it’d still be too warm back in New York for it—and head out the door, checking my pockets for the keys and money. Yep, they’re there. I walk the mile into town, knowing I’ll probably waste four pounds (seven dollars, I estimate mentally) for a cab on the way back. It’s a nice walk, anyway. The sun is low, the wind picks up. I can actually see the sun, sort of, in the distance, setting across the sea over a more populated patch of land. Edinburgh. I still haven’t made it there. I shiver, turtling my neck deep into my jacket, the only one I brought—it was such a last-minute trip I didn’t really think about winter clothes. I wonder if the trees will look anything like the ones in New England in a few weeks. I am on the main road, the occasional car passes by. I still get freaked out, they drive on the wrong side of the road. I pass houses, lots of houses, apartment buildings that look like castles. Then, a college on one side, some industrial stuff on the other, the water side.
It’s very hilly, mostly downhill on the way there, my legs sometimes feel like they’re gonna give. I am tempted to let them go, to just run, but I don’t, I maintain a steady pace. I finally reach town, but instead of going up to the high street, the British equivalent of Main Street, I continue along the water a few blocks and there’s Harlem. It’s quiet, not many cars. I walk in, it’s warm, almost empty. Up to the bar, I keep on my jacket, I still haven’t shaken the chill I got outside. My feet and nose feel numb from the sudden temperature change.
The bartender I remember greets me. “Oh look, it’s the American!”
I smile and take a seat. “Sure is. How’s it going?”
“Not bad, not bad. What can I getcha?”
“Pint of Guinness.”
“Ah, you’re learning.”
She smiles, begins to artfully pour the pint. Last time she told me how she thinks it’s funny when Americans come in and order “a Guinness” (making the “a” sound like the sound you make when a doctor asks you to stick out your tongue—“ahhh”) or better yet, “two Guinnesses.” That was a lesson I learned the hard way back in New York, at one of the more authentic Irish pubs there (authentic as in, they will not serve Irish car bombs). One of the bartenders there, Anto, still makes fun of me for that one, no matter how long it’s been that I’ve corrected my order. He makes fun of me for that, I call him an S.O.B., which, if people around us overhear, I have to explain means “straight off the boat.” But I don’t think I told this bartender about that. Our conversation last time was mostly her talking, me trying to understand her thick Fife accent. It got better as the night wore on.
My bartender, she leans on the bar as the first pour of my pint settles. “So how are you? How’s your trip been? Anything new this week?”
I take a moment to take in what she says, makes sure I get it all, and her bright brown eyes. “Nothing new, no. Still haven’t managed to get out of town.”
She laughs. “Yea. It’s boring as fuck here.”
“Oh, it’s not bad,” I kind of lie.
“Go to Edinburgh.”
“I plan to, definitely. Do you know it well?”
“Yea, I lived there a few years.”
“What would you recommend, shops and stuff?”
“Em…” She thinks a moment, then rattles off a bunch of names as she finishes pouring the pint. Chocolate Soup, All Bar One, The Royal Mile of course and especially its street vendors, the Edinburgh Dungeon if you like that sort of thing. “But you don’t strike me as the touristy type.”
“Nah.” I like that she saw that in me. I take the first sip of my pint, glorious. She pours a good one. Unlike that pokey punk at the bar Johnny took me to my first night in town. A friend of his, sure, but a bad pint-pourer. I didn’t tell him that, though. My jacket’s now off, draped messily over the back of my seat. Circulation has returned to my feet and nose.
“Good. Go to Coburn Street.”
“Coburn? C, O, B. U, R, N?”
“C, O, C, K. B, U, R, N.”
“What? Wow. Weird.”
“Aye.” She smirks.
“What was that smirk for?”
“You Americans. You always say things the way they’re spelled, not how they’re actually said.”
“Oh. Is that how it is?”
“Aye! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘Edin-BERG’ or ‘Ker-CALL-dee’ or ‘scone’ with a long ‘O’ or…” She laughs, cannot continue.
“Oh please! You work in a bar called Harlem!”
“Fair enough, fair enough.” She winks at me. Or maybe it’s just a facial tick. She’s done it a few times, but always pretty randomly, not during times you think you’d be winked at. Maybe it’s a Scottish thing.
An older straight couple come in, she makes her way over to them. It’s just her and this other guy on tonight, he’s off having a “fag.” Everyone here smokes just like they drink—a lot. Especially the young ones, apparently. Since the smoking age is sixteen. Not to mention the drinking age—eighteen. The U.S. hasn’t seen that since I was but a twinkle in my father’s eye.
I glance up at the TV, it’s soccer—or football or whatever—then look away, uninterested. I just can’t get excited about Northern Ireland and Wales playing against each other for the first time in so many years. I notice the music, I hadn’t before, she’d been distracting me. Yo La Tengo, I love them. I wonder whose choice. I look at my bartender, and imagine it’s hers. She moves gracefully, unconsciously in time to “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House.” She talks to her new customers, charming them, for some ungodly reason considering you don’t get tips here, not really, and I can’t hear what she’s saying, but just by the way her mouth moves, I can tell she’s speaking in her distinct Scottish brogue, a brogue some other Scots have a hard time understanding. So I don’t feel like such an ignorant American, on that level anyway. But maybe it’s just because I know she’s speaking in her distinct Scottish brogue, I think. I wonder if I would be able to tell, if I didn’t know? I look to the couple she’s speaking to, who by now have their drinks in front of them, trying to see if I can tell what their accent is just by how their mouths move. The woman says a few words, it’s too quick, otherwise they’re just listening. I think it’s probably pointless, because I assume that they’re also Scottish. If not Fife, definitely Scottish. You don’t get many non-Scots around here. I met an English guy, once, on the high street, working in the coffee shop I’ve been to a few times, but that’s all. And he’s only here for a little while, helping out his Scottish sister-in-law and her new baby. Scots, Scots, and more Scots. Couldn’t be more different than New York. Except for the having a hard time understanding people part. But in New York you get used to the different accents—where I frequent, mostly Latin American, Greek, Polish, Korean, and Italian—not so much Scottish or English or Irish or anything like that. I know some English accents from all the British comedies I watch, which is helpful in terms of lingo. For example, I know not to say “pants” when I mean pants, but rather “trousers.” Pants means underwear. So does knickers, though I guess that’s just women’s underwear. One I learned the hard way just a few days ago—“suspenders” here means garter belts. Wow, that was a fun mistake to make. They call suspenders “braces.” I wrote that down just so I wouldn’t forget. Not like I’m likely to, I got ragged on big time for that one. But the guy did have nice suspenders on.
But the accent, hello? Could they speak any faster? I have to brace myself (no pun intended) every time I see someone about to talk to me. Normally I wouldn’t try so hard, except here it’s everyone, so I figure if I’m going to get along, I’d better just bite the bullet and figure it out. They all seem to understand me just fine; I figure that’s just because of how much American stuff they’re exposed to all the time. Bloody imperialism.
My bartender, she comes back to me. “Another pint?”
I hadn’t realized it, I was almost done. “Um… sure.”
“Good to hear.”
“What, you trying to get me drunk?” I ask coquettishly.
“Maybe.” She winks, at the proper time this time. “I guess it’s too much to ask you to tip like an American.” She pulls back from her comfortable position leaning against the bar to pour my pint. My second pint. I like to keep count. And I find it’s easier if you start early on.
“Ouch. Do you find that Americans tip better?”
“Only if they haven’t been to any other bars to find out they don’t have to.”
I smile and finish the first of the famous two-pour pint before starting on the second. A few more people have been trailing in, she goes to see what they want. I remember I meant to ask her about the CD. I always forget about stuff like that until I see the person’s back, getting smaller as they walk away.
I see movement out of the corner of my eye and make the mistake of looking in that direction. A middle-aged man appears to have moved out of his seat to take one closer to me. Right next to me, in fact. He’s doing this all very deliberately, he’s pretty drunk. I look away quickly but it’s too late.
The Fife accent and the drunkenness combined make a deadly combination. “She’s great, in’ she?” I can only assume he says.
My response is more of a statement, said after a pause, not entirely cordial. “What.”
Something about the barmaid, he says. They don’t say bartender here, they say barman and barmaid. It offends my progressive American ears.
“Yeah,” I say randomly.
He leans in, I can see his brain working sloppily for his next line. I am suddenly enraptured in Northern Ireland and Wales playing against each other for the first time in so many years.
He says something else, I can’t make a word of it. It sounds like a question, but who can be sure? I turn to him, hoping my expression—now much more than merely not cordial—will give him the hint like my obviously otherwise occupied presence hasn’t.
Slightly less of a statement. “What?”
He says it again. I miss it again. These Fife people, man, you ask them to repeat something, and they just repeat it in the same exact way, they don’t try to slow down or elucidate or anything, even if they know you’re just another ignorant American. I think they do it on purpose. I think they get their kicks from it.
Next thing I know he’s practically in my face. I can smell him in a wave, it’s so offensive that more that than his actual being pushes me to the edge of my seat.
He speaks loudly into my ear. “Where. Are. You. FROM.”
A disgusted “Jesus!” escapes me. “Personal space, buddy!”
He mumbles something, backs off, but not enough. My bartender looks up, rolls her eyes, walks quickly on over. “Is ole Lester bothering you?”, she asks, half-joking.
“Yes.” I am not joking. She can tell. Thank you.
“Lester, leave the poor girl alone.”
“Aw was only—”
She interrupts him with a short syllable. “Eh. Go on back to your seat, Lester.”
Mumbling again, but defeated. He stumbles back, less coordinated than he was before, almost spilling his drink, which looks like a Coke cocktail. He adjusts himself in his seat, and, finally sure he’s even, takes a sip and looks sullenly at the TV, squinting slightly.
My bartender and I look back at each other at the same time. “Sorry about that.”
I smile. “Thanks.”
There’s a break in the flow of customers so we chat a bit, and I order another pint. I glance over at ole Lester a few times, he doesn’t seem to move. Then at one point, he’s gone. I didn’t see him leave, it’s like he just evanesced. Just as well. Now I can drink alone in peace, thank you, though I’ve slowed my sippage a bit. I find that Guinness always goes to my head quicker than I think it will. Guinness from closer to the source, anyway.
When it slows down a bit, I see my bartender talking to her fellow bartender, gesturing to the TV, the clock. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head, smiles. She pats him on the head, goes to the TV. Turns the knob.
I look up just in time to see the channel settle onto a screen identification of Channel Four, and then, almost like a dream, I never thought I’d see it ever again, the shadowed, block-lettered “Law & Order” logo emanates onto the screen. My heart stops. I see my bartender out of the corner of my eye, she flits over to the stereo, turns if off, back to the TV, unmutes it. “—Are considered especially heinous.” The “Law & Order” announcer, in his beautifully familiar voice, as the “Special Victims Unit” subtitle appears beneath. “In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious crimes are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” And then, the famous gavel-sound, the “dun-dun,” the “doink-doink,” the “collective unconscious universal sound” as Richard Belzer likes to call it in all those the USA Network ads I’d forgotten all about until this very moment.
You cannot tear the smile from my face as I watch the opening sequence and realize, oh my God, an episode I haven’t even seen before! My bartender laughs when she sees my face, I can hear her somewhere in the background.
She comes over after the teaser, when the opening credits begin. She smiles the smile of a discovery made. “Like ‘Law & Order’?”
“How could you tell?”
She laughs. “I haven’t seen this one.”
“Me neither. In fact, I haven’t been able to find it since being here. I’ve been going through withdrawal. You are my savior.”
During the episode, when she’s not got customers, she comes over to where I’m sitting to watch with me. We talk during the commercial breaks, about our favorite characters, our favorite episodes, great moments in the show’s history. I feel fantastic, elated, elevated, my lingering annoyance at ole Lester long since gone.
When the end credits roll, she asks, “You know what I’ve got?”
“The first series of ‘SVU’ on DVD.”
(Here they say “series” when we say “season”; “programme” when we say “series.” It’s all so confusing. But something I picked up during my Brit-com days so I’ve had no trouble adjusting.)
My eyes drool with the possibilities. “Wow. I’m jealous.”
My bartender smiles with one corner of her mouth. “So I don’t know how long you’re staying, but if you want to wait for me to close up we can watch a few episodes at my flat.”
Ooh. An invitation. The first like it I’ve received, here in these ole British Isles. (I think I’m going to say “ole” all the time now.) I gleefully accept her offer. And it’s a weekday, so they close early, I don’t have to wait long.
I tell her I’ll wait outside while she finishes up. She says I don’t have to, but I want to. The air here is nice, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to be outside so often. My bartender gives me a few cigarettes to keep me company.
I’m outside a few minutes, smoking, smiling at my luck. Another real “Law & Order” fan. Fuck! And I haven’t seen any first-season “SVU”s in a long time, I try to think about which ones I can remember. They don’t rerun them nearly as often as they used to, even on USA. I look around and, convinced the street’s empty, pull out my pocket notebook and pen to remind myself to say “ole.”
But I had misjudged my solitude. Out of the shadows staggers ole Lester, the sleazy sneak. I have disregarded him as a threat, I mean look how he’s walking, he can’t even keep his balance, so I just roll my eyes and when I see him lock his slanted gaze on me, tell him to piss off, thinking a phrase in his own bloody language will sink in.
It doesn’t. He is persistent. Very close to me. Once again not understanding personal space. I begin to edge toward the door before remembering he’s in between it and me. Give me a break, I’ve got a bit of a buzz on myself.
He says something, and though it’s low and slurred I can make it out, and for a brief moment I am happy, I’m getting the accent down! “You are beautiful.”
“Thank you. Now please go home, Lester.” My bartender called him before by his name intentionally, maybe that’s the key.
But no. He walks right into me and before I can move we collide. Notebook and pen fly out of my hand and land on the ground somewhere in the gutter.
“Shit!” Without thinking, my immediate reaction is to save my notebook, the holder of my grand and lofty worldly and spiritual thoughts and passages. I lean over and then he’s on me. Shit. His weight pressing on me, I can feel his breath, struggling to get closer to my face. I try to shrug him off but I’m in too weird of a position. Shit! I try to yell to scare him off, but not much comes out, my legs are pressing into my stomach.
He shifts again and I take the chance, I grab hold of opportunity, I play a gamble with beloved providence. I thrust my elbow up toward him and smile when I feel it hit home, something fleshy, the side of his belly, perhaps.
That just pisses him off though, the booze not allowing pain sensors. He barely loses his balance. How is that possible?, I think just as he bashes the side of my head with his arm. The blow is harried, unprepared, but angry and reactive. Blood and alcohol rush to my head, my vision is blurred with stars. I try to shake it out, my eyes welling up with tears, more blur, now I’m getting a little freaked out. I begin to quickly muster enough energy for another attempt at throwing him off when, when suddenly he is off—forcefully, knocking me to the ground as well.
My head thick, movements thicker, I scramble quickly as I can to my feet. The elevation fucks with my head for a minute, I sway, someone catches me. I know it’s my bartender before I can see her. Then I can see her, as my head clears. Then I can see ole Lester, also rising to his feet.
Still holding me steady, my bartender says, “Fuck off, Lester.”
He’s standing, holding his stance, as if to challenge her, but in the end he fucks off.
“Jesus!” She turns her attention to me as soon as she’s convinced he’s gone. “Are you okay?”
“Er, yeah.” I think there are marbles in my mouth. Or else in my head. I don’t know. Meh.
She gets my fallen stuff for me, the nice girl.
She takes me inside and gets me water. They are all finished closing, I notice. Her fellow bartender has left.
I say after the water has helped, “I’m okay,” and I really am okay. Except for the throbbing on the side of my head. I raise my hand to it.
“Did he hit you? Your head?” She immediately gets me a bar towel wrapped in ice. Its unforgiving cold and forgiving cloth bring back some more circulation.
I smile. “Thanks.”
She shakes her head slightly, smiling also slightly, and brushes her hand also slightly against the good side of my head. “I’m so sorry about that. He’s usually harmless. I’ve never seen him like that before.” She lets out a small laugh, in spite of herself. “He must really like you!”
I roll my eyes. “I’m flattered.” But I laugh, too.
“Hey, listen, are you really okay?”
“Yeah, I have a hard head.”
“Do you want to call the cops?”
“No, no.” I don’t want to think about that right now. I don’t.
“Do you want to cancel our date and just go home? I can make sure you get there okay.”
She called it a date.
“No. I mean, if that’s okay with you. If I go home I’ll just be pissed off and scared all night.”
“You can take out your anger on all the sleazy ‘SVU’ perps.”
I laugh. “Exactly.”
“And I can take care of your head.”
We stay in a bar a bit longer, until she’s convinced I’m okay—which is much later than I actually was okay, but it’s nice to be doted on by a cute bartender, so I don’t mind. We slide cautiously out the door when we see the taxi she’s called, she locks up Harlem and then we’re off, to her wee flat just down the road.