Read Strip the Willow Online

Authors: John Aberdein

Strip the Willow

 

PRAISE FOR JOHN ABERDEIN

 

‘My book of the year is
Amande’s Bed
by John Aberdein. It’s a good blasting story, a great river-rush of language and a book made of the combination of wisdom, energy and generosity.’ Ali Smith

 

‘High-voltage … the language is gloriously alive.’ Jackie Kay

 


Amande’s Bed
is at once a
Sunset Song
for Aberdonian townies, a Doric Roddy Doyle, and a Joycean delight in wordplay and
multi-consciousness
. It’s a memoir, a dream, a document, a quietly tragic comedy, wildly diverse yet unified – a daring and significant achievement.’ Andrew Greig

 

‘A tour de force of good writing with artful gaps in a convoluted plot, and a really sharp sense of the city of Aberdeen in the 1950s, even down to the lamented end of their tramcars. Aberdein has a really sharp ear for dialogue and a good sense of the absurd that lurks in the everyday.’ Professor Ian Campbell

 

‘Worth reading for the supple zest of the language alone.’

Jenny Renton,
Sunday Herald

 

‘Bold and extremely accomplished; big-hearted, clear-eyed and quick-witted … an elegy for what has been lost that still points to what might be.’ Stuart Kelly,
Scotland on Sunday

 

‘A balance of humour and tragedy, tragedy ultimately traceable to social conditions, but not in any mechanical way … I have never seen north-east urban speech given such natural, witty and yet dignified expression.’ Professor Lindsay Paterson

 

‘The most honest, perceptive and humane description of post-war working-class life I have ever read … sometimes funny, sometimes surreal, often stark, but always with a luminous compassion.’

Steve Arnott,
Scottish So
cialist Voice

 

‘Absolutely engrossing…’
Shetland Times

 

‘John Aberdein has perfected his art to create a modern masterpiece.’

John Ross Scott,
Orkney Today

 

‘To me
Amande’s Bed
reads like Joyce edited by Grassic Gibbon: a humane
Ulysses,
more manageable.’ Brian Smith,
New Shetlander

 


Amande’s Bed
is perhaps not the book to give to your maiden aunt. It is an excellent piece of writing. John Aberdein’s dialogue is authentic and often brilliant, showing a fine ear for the nuances of north-eastern dialect.’ Ron Ferguson,
Press & Journal

 

‘Dialogue is witty, pithy, incisive, Pinteresque … the prose is worthy of Borges on an off day. Which is praise indeed.’

Tom Adair,
Scotsman

 

‘His funny, acidic, sexy stories … are bold (and, I think, successful) experiments in pushing back the boundaries of Scots narrative.’

Duncan McLean

 

‘Truly well-crafted work… his narrative control in the most sensitive treatments of raw sexual behaviour is masterful.’ Gerard Carruthers

 

‘Extremely funny…’ Robin Bell,
Books in Scotland

 

‘A book of grand dreams in little lives and of tragedy only a single breath from delight.’ Katie Gould,
The List

 

‘A wholly authentic new voice – think lyrical Grassic Gibbon meets ludic Vonnegut.’ Gavin Wallace

 

‘A ribald, gutsy combination of smeddum and alienation … Scottish and universal.’ Professor Douglas Gifford

Strip the Willow

John Aberdein

For Finn and Heather

 

The author would like to thank the Scottish Arts Council for a bursary which enabled him to devote time to researching and writing this novel.

 

Warm thanks to family and friends for their unfailing support, and for their detailed and constructive criticism.

what larks

A lemon UCKU plastic bag, flat on the tar, lank in the air, hopped and gusted towards her. According to the latest story, plastic bags were the root of all badness.

Nobody will be free until the last financier is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat.

Get your orgasms throwing paving stones.

L’imagination c’est le pouvoir. Imagination is power.
Such was the calibre of slogan she and others had printed and glued to the walls of Paris.

Mort aux sacs plastiques!
It didn’t quite fit, somehow.

 

Lucy sat on the leather seat of her Morris Traveller, on the
wind-swept
Prom.

She glanced at the sixty perspex pods, slow-spun on the high wheel:
UberEye.

She gazed where concrete churned in the big orange drum, to make a matrix for the perspex surf pens:
UberSea.

Tomorrow LeopCorp and the Council would consummate:
UberStreet.

Tell it like it is, thought Lucy, because – and this was the crunch – she too was responsible.

 

It came pissing down. She drove a lap of the Prom in her Morris Traveller, for the joy of the hissing road. She skimmed past the corporate joy aids.

 

She parked. Guy had invited her up on UberEye for a special viewing.

– This is not really your area, he said, as they stepped into a pod, but I thought you’d like a look.

Guy did insufferability really well.

– It might help to straighten out some of your ideas, he continued. The hoi polloi want kicks, Lucy, individually packaged kicks, the proles are not that creative.

– Either way, she’d said, you don’t give a fuck, Guy, do you?

– You do? said Guy.

– Yes, said Lucy, I give one.

– Yet you still keep your fancy job, Lucy love, said Guy.

The slur was more piercing than the far from idle threat.

 

As their pod rose, locked in its curve, she had to admit it was not that boring. You could see the city in relief, less as a granite warren, more as a mental map. You could see the twin rivers, Dee and Don. Between them lay the quaint hills of the hinterland, Bennachie, Scoltie, Tap o Noth – volcanic, sculpted, vitrified – that many used to tramp. Out at sea, a hazy view of the windfarms and the
planet-saving
kits.

– So what are you going to charge? she asked, when the pod reached its zenith.

– Twelve, said Guy, nine for concessions. Stags and hens and birthday deals. They’ll flock from all over.

– No doubt, Lucy said, and paused.

And then she posed the killer question.

– But, even at that, will LeopCorp be satisfied?

 

If she could have turned on her heel in triumph at that point – but the pod was at two hundred feet.

– To make global impact— said Guy, and gripped the chrome rail as the wheel started downwards— we must always accelerate. Let’s hit that tonight. You’ll be at rehearsal?

– I won’t fail the feast.

 

It was still barely noon. Back in the car, she paused at the bend in the Prom where the Don cut through its own sandbanks with grey and silver scissors. There used to be larks, high in the sky. She stopped, wound down the window and listened, but there were no larks, only concrete pouring and distant engines. What larks? When did
you ever hear larks in the tail of winter? She looked back at her city for a good long time.

 

The city glinted back at its lover, was shrouded, swept with narrowing rains, then glinted again.

a violent undresser

Alison and Gwen were having a discussion, in Gwen’s bedroom, about how untidy a bedroom could be and still be counted as one. Gwen wasn’t much of a dresser, but she was a violent undresser. She was a great reader and writer, but not a great filer. She wasn’t a compulsive showerer, but there were enough damp towels in the eclectic landslide that hid her bed to guarantee a brisk
decomposition
.

– So fit’s this ye’ve got yir heid stuck intae noo? said her mother, picking up the topmost book from the pile.

– Fit’s this? mocked Gwen. It’s Rosa Luxemburg. Revolutionary and martyr.

– We’re aa martyrs in wir ain wey.

– Are we? Even when we sell out?

– Fa’s sellin oot?

– You for a start. You and your wonderful pal, Lucy. The Council.

– I resent that, said Alison.

– Resemble that, said Gwen.

– I really div. I only dae fit I dae tae keep body an soul thegither, and keep ye, quine, in new knickers.

– The world’s not only about new knickers.

– Ye’d be surprised.

– The men I fuck— said Gwen.

– Oh, aye—? said her mother.

– Never you mind. Rosa made revolution without an ounce of make-up.

– There’s mair than ae kind o revolution.

– Till she got shot.

– Fa o? said Alison. Fa did she get shot o, like?

– Fa o? Fa o? jibed Gwen. You’d maybe learn, if you’d only listen.

– Bound tae get shot, of course, said her mother, if she kept her bedroom in this kind o sotter. If Bill clapped een on this, he’d dump ye quick.

– Bill will never dump me. He told me for a fact. Even if – anyway—

She always slept with Bill round his place, the staff annexe at the hotel, inhaling his post-work odours; his thyme, coriander, oxter sweat and gravies.

– Anyway, I’ve got an interview, said Gwen. Didn’t tell you I’d applied, did I?

– Sae sudden these days, madam, said her mother. Faraboot? Fa wi?

– LeopCorp Towers, live-in assistant. I’ll be out from under your feet. Bill’s got one too, interview.

– LeopCorp? Rookie Marr? Ye sure?

– Yes, I’m sure. We’ve both got interviews and we’re going for it. Get in on the inside.

– The fit? said Alison. The inside? I’m sayin nithin—

– Good, said Gwen. That’s taken you long enough.

like honey under the moon

It was late afternoon. Luna came and sat near Guy on the circular couch. Rookie was close on his other side. All three sat within touching distance, without touching. They were surrounded by plasma viewing screens – three banks of twelve curved screens – on which many a trauma swam. They felt private and privileged, as they watched the world spill its entrails. They felt as sensory as sharks.

 

Luna she might be called, but whether she was the full Luna or not remained to be found out. And why she lent herself to a jerk like Rookie Marr impressed itself on Guy as a question.

Most dealings he had with women had their inherent pain. Lucy, for example, his Council counterpart, his sparring partner at work,
was almost an opposite to Luna. Lucy refused to capitulate to the system without squawking; she was always querying Guy’s actions, as though she were his freelance conscience. But then she was a child of Paris, one of those rich gamines who claimed revolution on the back of a few screenprinted posters and a fistful of cobbles.

Alison, her deputy, was another case: brittler maybe, not
continually
sniping, but letting her criticism boil over in fierce laughter, then buckling down again. Alison was feisty, but she knew the score. LeopCorp paid the Council, and the Council paid her bills.

He was constrained to work with Lucy for the next two nights, then he would see.

 

But for now it was about Luna. Luna wore a slim silver dress, doubly slit. Her legs were not in the least milky. Luna’s legs, when they moved in the silver dress, were like honey under the moon.

Luna and her protector, Rookie Marr, lived in conjoined turrets. Hers was South Turret, Blissville, dedicated to joy and whatnot; his was North Turret, the Fastness, the vantage, perched at the seaward end of the city’s main street.

Mile-long Union Street was a triumph of city-straightening from the nineteenth century. It was ideal for LeopCorp’s needs because it was available, simple and cheap, unlike the Mall, Fifth Avenue, Sunset Strip, the Reeperbahn and the Champs-Elysées. One mile long, pretty damn broad, and with high flush walls, it was the perfect stretch colosseum, where Spectacle could cavort and be syndicated, here and beyond.

 

Guy had a central part to play. He had a grounding in the theory and praxis of events management. He used to write tracts about it. He used to attend clandestine conferences, where a select few plotted how the banal spectacle of life could be overturned, surrender its passivity, and come into consciousness.

Commodity slavery:
non.
Life as sharpened in situations: a very big
oui. Desire for consciousness, and consciousness of desire
was a phrase much bandied about.

Then, on one ill-judged foray in the
Guardian
, in a colour piece about a Situationist conclave in Islington in the early 1990s, he used
that phrase without attribution, passing it off as his. He was
immediately
sacked from the International by its self-appointed founder,
flic, philosophe
and prat.

Henceforward, having been accused of plagiarism, he decided to inhabit his sin. He changed his name from Terry Clarkson to Guy Bord. Up North especially they grinned at the sound of that; it had an ironic slant in a Scottish accent. He offered his services wherever Spectacle concentrated its rhetoric, for example at celebrations of wishful thinking and invocations of the irrational on drained moors. Thus
Culloden 2 – The Remake,
a rejigging of historical forces, and
The Bogfire Banshee Bash,
a solstice thing, sat at the top of his CV.

But he was always on the qui vive for movers and shakers, keen to be inserted in the city scene where crowds were more readily channelled, the money was bigger and the equipment didn’t blow down. And they didn’t come much more moving-and-shaking than LeopCorp, the Marr outfit. Guy’s presentation at interview was a neo-Situationist three-card trick. How to take a readymade city, lock it to one’s purpose, and shaft it for all it was worth. That’s what had got him on to the couch.

 

They were devouring a montage of classic hits on thirty-six DVDs. Cliff divers soloing down at blue Acapulco, multiple meerkats jabbering about a snake, a million ecstatic pilgrims up to their bits in a very brown Ganges. An attack on border police in China (studio reconstruction only), a polar bear mauling a small white whale, floods and selective searchers sweeping Louisiana.
Everything
was so vivid, fluid, varied, the circular couch itself seemed a coracle, spinning by Treasure Island. Guy didn’t clock this at first. Was the wall spinning left, or was it the couch revolving right? But then he saw the remote in Rookie’s palm. Rookie stopped whatever the spin was briefly, pointing and guffawing. Then it started again. So Guy just went with the flow, leaning, ardent for a warm shoulder. The shoulder eluded him.

 

In his heart of hearts, Guy knew that one day there would be no room for him on the revolving couch. It too would evolve into a cliff. He hoped he would have the timing to make his move, rather
than be shoved off backwards. Or if they sought to dunk his face in rivers of shit, he would volunteer for an ankle-deep tributary.
No illusions,
he said to himself. He tried to suppress the statement that yammered behind that,
I have the illusion I have no illusions.
Because madness beckoned, the moment you let the line slacken.
I have the illusion I have the illusion I have no illusions

What line? The line of his hardened forty year old jaw. The taut whale-fastened line of an events manager. The line a white homes in on, when it senses injury in the water.

 

A bank of three plasma screens doubled as a door, though the remote had to be pressed to find out which. One of the wall-screens was rumoured to be a window but Luna had not, during her lonesome daily searches, discovered it. Torrid plasma pulsed round her all the time, except when she was in Rookie’s bed or her own. Rookie Marr had informed Luna there was no need to go out. He himself made only occasional excursion.
Out
was where filming took place.

I am the Leopard, he’d said to her, on their first night. Whatever in him had wooed her earlier, this was indeed news. He was not only the son and heir to LeopCorp, he had inaugurated a bestiary. You’ll want for nothing, he had continued. It was only a couple of steps from there, she estimated, to
You’ll achieve nothing, You’ll be nothing.
Rookie Marr. He’d made her bed, she’d chosen to lie on it.

 

– Well, Guy, said the Leopard. It’s time to say goodbye.

– Goodbye, said Guy.

– Tonight rehearsal, tomorrow the real thing, said the Leopard, with as much grandiloquence as he could muster.

Real thing,
thought Guy. He was an events man, he did
mega, way out, fantastic,
there was no need to grub around with talk like that.

– Luna, said the Leopard, with a jerk of his sub-leonine head.

– Yes, Leop? said Luna. She had once tried
Pard,
from which he recoiled like a winged gunfighter.

– See our new man out, said Rookie Marr.

– Yes, Leop, said Luna.

 

When Luna stood up and walked, Guy could not keep his eyes off her long skirt. Luna’s skin, as revealed, was at the darker end of the honey spectrum.

– And Guy— said Rookie Marr, drawing off his gaze.

– Yes? said Guy.

– Make it good, said Rookie Marr.

– Of course, said Guy.

– Or you know what you will be?

– Toast? said Guy, in measured hope.

– Dead meat, said the Leopard.

 

The Leopard pressed a yellow key on the black remote.

A curved plasma screen, showing in slo-mo the trampling of a tourist in Pamplona, swung inwards, dipped hooked horn adrip with gore, and a bright stairwell beyond was revealed. Luna indicated Guy to go first. Even in the world of the shark pool, hospitality died hard. She saw him to the threshold, she saw him through the slo-mo door. She saw him down the first dozen steps. As he descended, he felt a modest number of fingers on his shoulder. He turned around.

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