Tuesday, 30 October 2012

My kingdom for a butter knife


When was the last time you met someone called Doris?  Or Dorothy, for that matter. Not to mention Ethel, Maude, Betty and all their ilk.  They seem to be facing extinction--the snow leopards of Jenner’s tea room. But they’re not all gone; there was a Doris on the 35 last week.

This Doris was riding the bus with the look on her face of a woman who thinks she might catch an STD from the upholstery--’after all’, you could almost hear her say, ‘you don’t know where the seat’s been’ (except that you do, if you’ve read the bus route).  She had the skirts of her pale lilac (I’m sure she would say mauve) Windsmoor faux snake embossed mac gathered around her legs as if she expected an infestation of hooligan mice and held her handbag with one arm through the handles, clutched to her chest--both shield and weapon of choice. 

She was with a friend who, though apparently cut from similar dry-clean only cloth, rode the bus with the insouciant ease of a regular--I could only imagine she had enticed Doris on to the bus with the promise of the Queen’s Gallery and a scone with Duchy clotted cream and jam in the Palace cafe after.  

They put their stiffly moussed heads together for a good natter, which seemed  to be about a newcomer to their book group.  Not only had the novice hostess chosen an unsuitable book  (Noddy and Big Ears?  Fifty Shades of Grey?  A biography of Neil Kinnock?), when she brought out the tea and drop scones not only were there tea bags rather than loose leaves in the pot, there was no sign of a butter knife.  Nothing more was said for several moments as both women gazed silently out the window, as if trying to take in the enormity, the sheer perfidy of this terrible breach of decorum.

You may think this an extreme reaction and so would I, if I had not had it demonstrated to me that in some quarters, butter knives still count.  When I moved into my first flat in Edinburgh an acquaintance came to see me.  Helping me set the table for lunch (I say ‘set’ the table because a very elegant friend once gently corrected me when I said I was going to lay the table.  ‘No dear, one sets a table’, she said with a twinkle.  ‘One lays a mistress’), she was taken aback to find I had no butter knife.  Obviously dismayed, she took this as a this sign that I had come down in the world (rather than as an indication that Ikea doesn’t include butter knives in their six-piece cutlery sets).  A butter knife appeared in the post a few days later, though I keep losing it down the back of the drawer. I think it goes without saying I never would have cut the butter, the mustard or anything else as a Doris.   

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Elvis Redux (and not a bus in sight)


I happened to walk over the Falshaw Bridge again one dreich evening last week.  The rain had been pounding down for hours and the river was high in the gloom, a boiling pot of ink.  It was dark in the way only a stormy October evening can be.  The only points of light were the smears of foam on the river and Elvis, who was tucked up on a small bit of bank, the evil-looking water roiling past, close to encircling him on his almost island.  He glowed in the gloom--a sodden dingy white, his bright bill tucked into his neck, its tip buried deep in the wet, clinging feathers.  He looked indescribably noble and horribly lonely--a fairytale prince lost under some evil enchantment and I wondered again why he shunned the company of the other swans not far away in Inverleith Park.

A couple of days later I was walking up the road, wondering if Elvis would still be there when I heard someone calling out ahead of me, ‘where are you my lovely boy? Come along now,’ followed by the creak of the gate that leads onto the grass strip by the bridge.  When I was far enough along I could see a man of more than middle years wearing a long grey coat and carrying a large plastic bag.  He was still calling and had one hand held out, as you would to a friendly dog.  To my astonishment I saw Elvis--not walking, but running; bowing his head to be stroked by the man, who carried on chatting as he alternately petted Elvis and reached into his bag for the bread he had brought with him.  

Now, every swan I have ever seen has been aloof, cranky (if not down-right bad-tempered), largely unapproachable and certainly not cuddly.  An irascible temperament seems to go with their regal appearance. Yet here was this enormous, clumsy creature rushing to be caressed, his long neck looping with pleasure.  They moved off together across the grass and toward the river as if they were confiding in one another--the imperious white bird and his friend.  

Yes folks, I think it might be a bromance--the old man and the swan. Or perhaps it is a fairytale--the tale of a wizard and a lost prince.  In any case I hope it is a long story, as in life one thing is certain:  we can never be sure of a happy ending.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

There's a swan down the river swears he's Elvis


If you take the bus down to Stockbridge and find yourself on the Water of Leith, just by the Falshaw Bridge there is a triangle of grass next to the river which has become home to a mute swan.  He is a swan out of a storybook--huge and handsome--a bird to be reckoned with.  He is also something of a celebrity hereabouts, wearing his biography in the band round one of his legs.  He was tagged when he was nothing but an ugly duckling in Falkirk, but he blew off the little town for the big city and has  been seen in all the wet places, from Portobello beach to Duddingston Loch to the pond in Inverleith Park. It seems he never settled anywhere for long...until he came to the peaceful spot next to the Falshaw Bridge, where he set up housekeeping with a duck.  No one knows quite why he spurned the community of Inverleith where there were other swans to socialise with for his quiet corner under the bridge, but there he stayed with his lady duck, having no apparent desire for birds of his feather.  

Tragically, the duck disappeared in the floods earlier this year, but the swan survived and stayed.  Nor does he show any sign of straying.  Swans, of course, are said to mate for life, but people seem surprised to see him apparently in mourning for a mallard.  

This is no surprise to me having had--not swans, but an enormous gander in the Isle of Skye, who was called ‘Jimmy the Tory’.  Jimmy had a wife named Agnes and they were a devoted couple, spending their days menacing the ankles of anyone who came out of the house, lowering their necks and swaying their heads from side to side like cobras wearing a lot of orange lipstick.  One day Agnes died and the gander went into a decline until, in desperation, a tiny khaki campbell duck was borrowed from neighbours to keep him company.  This bit of odd-couple match-making was a success--except that when Jimmy the Tory (who was no spring chicken) died, the little duck began to pine.  At this point the bidie-in duck was sent back to her home pond without so much as a golden egg to her name (she was, after all, a Campbell duck in an island densely populated by Macdonalds).  

Sadly, the Stockbridge One looks set to end his days in lonely devotion to his lost duck, though I cannot say that he is exactly wasting away.  In the same way that neighbours used to bring casseroles to a house where there has been a bereavement, the swan seems to have half the contents of Greggs chucked his way most days, making our swan less of a Prince and more of an Elvis. It is sad to see him spending his lonely days rearranging his breast feathers and no doubt worrying about the size of his beak. So if anyone knows a lady swan who isn't looking for commitment, or even a flighty Canada goose just about to pack her panniers and head south (as it seems clear our swan is a loner with a taste for the exotic so would probably like a goose who talks with a funny accent), do float her down to the Falshaw Bridge where she can cozy up to the bank, wiggle her tail feathers and ask Elvis, ‘hey buddy, are you lonesome tonight?’