Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!
‘Audrey!! Shut u…’
Bark! Bark! Bark!
‘Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!
‘SHUT UP! It’s a knock at the door you stupid bloody mutt!!’
The old man pulled himself out of his armchair and walked across to the door, slowly, achingly, his body wading through a near-impenetrable cloud of smoke. A well-earned cloud of smoke built up throughout the years. The poisonous particles hanging in the air, content and restful, secure in their domain. He halted, resting his arm on the dust-laden couch, and proceeded to viciously cough up a smattering of phlegm.
‘Who is it?’ he manages to spit out in between coughs.
‘I said, who is it?’ he shouts.
Again, his question is met with silence.
‘Ah, sod ye!’ he calls. ‘Bloody arseholes! I was just starting to doze!’
He threw his arms up in exasperation, a meaningless gesture to an audience of no-one, and turned to make the long trek back to his armchair. Audrey had by now nestled herself comfortably at the foot of the chair, her eyes beginning to wane under an onslaught of sleep. His chair. Forty years or so he’s had that chair. Each cigarette burn hole, each coffee stain, each pulled and withered thread playing a part in the great tapestry that is the story of this chair. It’s seen numerous royal weddings, countless wars, god knows how many Prime Ministers and First Ministers come and go, royal divorces, and far far far too many Scottish footballing failures, glorious or otherwise, throughout the years. A source of comfort and familiarity through times of strain, of stress, even heartache. All memories. It was his wife that had originally picked it out for him. She’d wanted rid of it in more recent years as its colour faded and material grew worn. Not a chance though, he’d declared. This was his chair. He’d be in this until the end. He’d die in that chair if need be. Besides, he had let her get that new couch. He gradually lowered himself into the chair, his bones creaking all the while. My chair, he thought. Only, it wasn’t his chair. Well, it certainly didn’t feel like it anyway. His eyes narrowed in suspicion, looking round at the chair. Fidgeting, shifting back and forth a couple of times. It felt cold somehow, different. Uneven. Uncomfy. He shook his head, dismissing the notion that any further thought was required around the subject, and picked up his pack of Regal from the coffee table by the side of his chair. He pulled out a cigarette and started to reach into his trouser pocket for his lighter.
Another knock at the door.
‘For god’s sake!’ he roared. ‘WHO IS IT?!’
Once again, silence. Not even a peep from Audrey who lay peacefully beside his chair.
‘Right!’ he spat, pushing himself forcefully out of his chair, discarding the cigarette packet on the table. He marched towards the door, and angrily slid and unhooked the chain. He turned the key, preparing himself for an outpouring of anger at the little buggers playing chap-door-run or the cold calling bastards who haunted the doorsteps of older folk like him. He opened the door. A middle-aged man stood before him, a red and white striped apron hung from his neck, in his right hand he clutched a pair of scissors and a comb, in his left a bag. A barber. A barber? What was a barber doing at his door?
‘Erm…hello.’ he muttered unsteadily before catching himself. ‘Eh aye, what is it?’
The barber stared at him silently, smiling.
‘Are you deaf son?! I said, what is it?’
Still the barber smiled at him, no word or sound emanating from his lips. The old man looked the stranger up and down. Angry yes but also slightly unnerved. The man before him had slicked back hair and sober clothing more befitting a man of the 1950s, certainly not this day and age.
‘Look son,’ he said. ‘I’ve not ordered any barber, you’ve obviously got the wrong address’
He started to close the door before the barber raised up his left hand to block it, still silent, still smiling.
‘Now look here son’ he said, a touch of aggression creeping into his voice. ‘I didn’t order any bloody barber, I’m not needing a haircut. Or…maybe…maybe I did. I cannae mind. My memory’s not been the best since….well, my memory’s not the best these days, let’s leave it at that.’
The barber smiled at the old man, brushing past him as he walked into the living room.
The old man, incredulous, turned, ready to launch a verbal volley at the stranger. Only to see him calmly laying out a towel next to his armchair, carefully arranging his hairdressing utensils on the table as he whistled away to himself. That tune, thought the old man. I know that tune. He couldn’t quite place it. The barber stood next to the chair, politely holding his out arm out in invitation, beckoning the old man to take a seat.
‘Seriously son, I don’t remember asking for this. My hair’s been getting a bit long these days aye but I’m ok, I don’t mind it.’
Still the barber stood, smiling, ushering the old man towards his chair. They stood staring at one another for a good ten seconds or so. The old man struggling to do the logical arithmetic in his head; the barber cheerfully whistling that familiar tune.
Bugger it, thought the old man. He probably did need his hair cut anyway. And it wasn’t half convenient that barbers came to your house now. Not that he’d heard of such a thing, mind you. He warily made his way across to his chair and tentatively sat down. As soon as he landed on the chair, the barber immediately sprung into action; snipping, combing and spraying with an almost manic cheerfulness. Constantly whistling that same tune. Saying not a word. The old man sat paralysed in a baffled cluelessness. Trying to piece together the situation. Minutes passed. He was about to broach the subject of when the booking was made when the barber stepped in front of him holding a mirror, shifting it from side to side and behind the head in that skillful, practiced way that all hairdressers seem adept at. He was slightly stunned when he saw the hair peering back at him from the mirror. It looked immaculate. A perfect side parting was joined by a healthy crop of slicked back hair not unlike Sean Connery in the early Bond films he thought, or the barber’s own hair in fact. And most startlingly of all it was black. Not the tired collection of greys that had nestled upon his head all these years. The barber stood, repeating the mirror move time and again, awaiting acknowledgement.
‘Aye son’ said the old man. ‘That’s brilliant’
The barber nodded, whipped away the mirror and speedily started gathering up his tools and materials.
The old man stepped towards the mantelpiece, his eyes fixed on his haircut, almost in a daze of disbelief. After a few seconds he came to.
‘Eh…look son, how much am I due you? To be honest I’m a bit short just now and forgot about this altogether. Give me a minute though and I’ll…’
His speech was halted by the door banging shut. The barber was gone. The old man looked left then right in nothing more than shock. He looked down at Audrey. She continued to sleep peacefully at the foot of his chair. He scrambled towards the door before yanking it open and peering outside, looking up and down the landing for any sign of the barber. He was gone. Away. Vanished. The old man touched his chin in bewilderment, slowly edging back inside, wondering how the barber had made such a quick getaway and why he hadn’t taken any payment from him. Closing the door and sliding the chain back on he made a quick, darting check of the flat with his eyes; no, nothing taken.
‘Well that was bloody strange’ he said out loud. He walked back to his chair, feeling slightly lighter and somehow sturdier than previously, and sat down, gently caressing his hair with his left hand, careful not to disturb the gelled work of art atop his head. His right hand reached automatically for his pack of Regal.
He had barely managed to lift the lid of the packet before another knock at the door resounded through the flat.
‘For f…..’ he started.
He glanced down at Audrey. Still asleep. He threw his pack of Regal onto the chair and walked towards the door, once more going through the unchaining and unlocking sequence. As the door swung open a man stood before him, silent, smiling, not at all unlike the barber.
‘Aye?’ said the old man.
‘Jesus, not this again. Look son, what is it?’
Silence. Infuriating, uneasy silence.
The old man was about to suggest where the man could away and sod off to when the visitor held up a suitbag, a black pinstriped suit peering out through the mottled and faded plastic. He was holding it out, waiting for the old man to grasp it by the coat hanger peeking out of the top.
‘What’s this?’ asked the old man, warily reaching out his hand.
As soon as he laid his fingers on the cold wire hanger, the stranger widened his smile with an almost false elasticity, rigidly turned sideways and set off down the landing.
‘Hey! Where are you off to?! Ho!’
The old man started to give chase but the stranger, if anything, quickened his pace.
‘Why?….Who?…Wh….ah sod it!’ said the old man as he stuttered to a halt, a thousand unanswered questions dripping off him as turned to go back into the flat.
He lay the suitbag on the couch, peering down at it with a healthy mixture of curiosity and cynicism. He bent down without incident – strange, he thought, for a man who had been accompanied in his daily travels and goings-on by a crick in his back for the last thirty years or so of his life – and gently unzipped the bag. He held the suit up before him. There was a fleeting familiarity to it but he couldn’t quite place it. Not a speck of dust lay on the suit yet it had an older quality to it. He checked the measurements. It was his size right enough. He instinctively lifted up one side of the jacket and checked the inside, an old never-forgotten tick undoubtedly brought on by his old man’s incessant need to label all his clothing – living in a slum with five brothers in Glasgow’s East side as a youngster would do that to a man. He froze. A.C. The label said A.C!? His father’s initials. It even had that slighty shaky, self-aware edge to the handwriting. He shook his head.
‘Don’t be so bloody stupid!’ he declared to himself out loud.
It could be anything. It could be the name of the company, for instance, he thought. In fact there’s a tailors down at the old shops down the way. Aye, he decided. Alex Cowan’s Suits. That was it. Robert Cowan’s Suits? No. No, it was definitely Alex, he tried to convince himself. See, that’s it, a coincidence, nothing more than coincidence. Still, he thought, it does look bloody familiar. And the question still stood, why had it been sent here? To him? Who had sent it? He derided his memory once more.
‘It’s a good suit though,’ he murmured. ‘Don’t you think so Audrey?’
His question was greeted by a snore and a gentle twitch of her tail.
‘Aye, you’re right, I may aswell give it a try before they figure out the mix up. No harm done.’
He slowly undressed down to his shirt and boxers before gradually pulling on the suit trousers, using his own belt to fasten them around his waist. A nice fit, he thought. He picked up the jacket, slipping his arms in one at a time, before buttoning it up. Again, a good fit. It felt comfortable. More than that, it felt like he’d worn it previously. That familiar feeling gnawing at him in waves and yet, he still couldn’t quite grasp why. He patted down the jacket with the back of his hands and turned to look in the mirror. The slightest of smiles cracked at the corner of his mouth. Suitably impressed he thought, almost as pleased with his appearance as he was by his pun. His gaze drifted up towards his haircut and back down to the suit. There was a youthfulness about his appearance, one that seemed to seep into his bones. He felt younger. Felt vibrant. Felt…his thought was cut short but yet another knock at the door.
‘Flowers!? Naw, naw son.’
The delivery man smiled back at the old man, that now-staple vacant stare gazing straight ahead.
‘And chocolates!? I’ve not eaten chocolate in about ten years! What would I be wanting those for? Eh?’
Not a word or sound in return.
‘Look son, who’s behind all this? It’s taking the piss now.’
‘Do none of you buggers talk anymore?’
‘Bloody hell!’ he growled as he snatched the flowers and box of chocolates from the delivery man’s hand.
‘Right you wait there. Ok! You bloody well wait there. I’ll pay one of you sods today if it’s the last thing I do.’ he said as he turned and walked back into his flat. He placed the flowers and chocolates on the couch absent-mindedly, trying to think where he’d left his wallet. He spied it on the sideboard behind the couch. He started to make his way over when another knock at the door came.
‘What the f….the door’s already bloody open!?’ he shouted.
He spun round and headed to the door.
‘Look pal, I don’t know what….who the bloody hell are you?! Where’s the other boy went to?’
A new delivery man stood in front of him. Again, his hair was slicked back in that late 50‘s/early 60‘s style. An apron hung down from his waist, a tea-towel slung haphazardly over his shoulder. A chef, by the looks of things. He had a plate in each hand. On each plate sat a substantially sized battered fish, a handful of chips, a scattering of peas and a generous dollop of tomato sauce. The old man gaped in awe at the plates. They were hot, no doubt about that, steam was rising from both meals. This had long since passed bizarre, he thought, we were now officially in the realms of batshit lunacy. He glanced back up at the man’s face. Smiling, vacant, silent. Like all before.
‘Silent treatment from you aswell son aye?’
Predictably, the chef continued to smile.
‘Aye well good. Just you do that. Only I certainly didnae bloody well order any food. I’ve had my tea already and I’ve not needed two of anything for years now. So, with respect son, just bugger off please.’
The chef pushed past him firmly, not a flicker of recognition for the words spoken to him or the old man he stepped past. The old man stumbled slightly, once more aghast at the ignorance on show. Something inside told him not to bother protesting though. Deaf ears were all the protests would meet. The chef stepped up to the coffee table in the middle of the room, speedily cleared the table of all items and debris, shifted both plates onto his left hand, pulled a cloth from his back pocket with his right and wiped the table. The old man looked on in open-mouthed wonder. The chef then pulled a red and white checkered tablecloth from his pocket, smoothing it out as he laid it on the table and placed both plates down next to each other. He quickly added a pair of fork and knives next to each before gently sprinkling salt and vinegar over both plates – the condiment jars also suddenly appearing out of the seemingly unending pocket supply. The chef stood up, briefly admiring his handywork. The old man felt compelled to say something, anything. To query, to wonder what the bloody hell. But then the door rapped yet again.
‘This is bloody stupid!’ he declared.
He turned around, readying himself for the next onslaught of strangeness, when two smiling strangers brushed past him as they walked into the flat, each carrying one end of a large box. Without even a hint of recognition for either the old man or the chef, who was by now making his way out of the flat, they carried the object towards the mantelpiece, laying it down on the floor. They started to unpack the box, pulling out equipment and objects of all different sizes with a studied mechanism. The old man turned and looked towards his sleeping dog.
‘I give up Audrey, I bloody well give up’
He wandered over to his front door, still sitting open, and looked out. The landing was cloaked in silence. Nothing hinted at the madness he had been subjected to within the last…10 minutes? 20 minutes? Half an hour? Time seemed to have slipped his grasp. He stood for a few seconds, trying to reason his thoughts with the events. Useless. He turned around, slightly startled yet again, as the two newest strangers walked past him on their way out. Collecting himself he began to think about shouting out at them as they left, instead throwing his arms up in exasperation. He looked up, amazed by the sight in front of him. His mantelpiece was gone, replaced by a large projector screen. He looked left. The projector, antiquated but obviously robust, lay on the sideboard, a film reel attached to it.
‘Not a clue,’ he announced to himself. ‘Not a sodding clue.’
He closed the front door behind him. He glanced from left to right and back again. He looked down at his suit, subconsciously smoothing it down with one hand, the other hand gently caressing his hair once again. He felt a nervousness rise slowly within him. Why? he thought. Aye, this sequence of events would be enough to send anyone doolally but it wasn’t that. The nervousness was different somehow. A sweat started forming on his brow.
‘I need a seat’ he decided. ‘That’s all.’
He felt slightly faint, concluding that the couch, being the closest seat to him, would suffice. He slowly turned around, picking up the flowers and chocolates, as he started to lower himself onto couch. Before being stopped in his tracks, yet again, by another knock at the door. This time gentler than all the rest.
‘For god’s sake!’
Flowers and chocolate in hand, he slowly walked to the door.
The old man stumbled slightly, shock racing through his veins, as his wife of nearly 50 years stood before him. Wearing a yellow and white polka dot dress, a yellow hairband topping off the ensemble. Smiling, silent; the usual drill. Only, she looked far younger than he remembered, a youthful colour infused her demeanour. She looked as gorgeous as the day he first met her.
‘Annie…’ he stuttered. ‘What the, what are you…what…’
His arms outstretched in bafflement. She smiled bashfully and took the flowers and chocolates from him, gently, yet nervously, kissing him on the cheek as she did so. He’d forgotten he even had them in his hand. As he stood, rooted to the spot, adrift in a sea of uncertainty, she silently locked her soft, warm hand with his and walked into the room, nudging the front door shut in the process. He followed in a trance, enraptured by her beauty, her elegance, her poise.
She led him to the couch and sat down, gesturing for him to do the same. She smiled and rubbed her hands in glee as she spotted the feast before them, steam still spewing forth from the plates. She picked up her fork and knife and cut a bit of the fish, spearing a chip with her fork and dipping it into the tomato sauce. Smiling all the while. As she lifted the forkful to her mouth she caught sight of the old man’s unfaltering stare. She simply smiled wider and nodded towards his plate. He cautiously lifted up his fork and knife from the table, under the control of her smile more so than his own senses, and started pushing the food about his plate, picking up a chip with his hand. He bit down, a searingly hot blast rippling through his mouth. The chip dropped from his mouth as he exclaimed a mixture of ‘ooyahs and ows’. He looked up through the pain to see her laughing. No, you’d call that giggling, he thought. Her wrist held up against her mouth as she tried to stifle the laugh, her shoulders dancing up and down in a betrayal of her efforts. Something resembling deja-vu flashed through his mind, it was all so bloody familiar, he thought. This meal, that rogue chip, that giggle. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, looking up with something approaching a smile as her laugh died down. They sat and ate in silence. Not an uncomfortable silence, no. A warm, content, happy silence. They both finished their meals at the same time, her coupling her knife and fork together on the plate, him straddling both across his in a haphazard manner. Without warning she leaned over and corrected his fork and knife, pushing them together on his plate, playfully flashing him a smile as she sat back up. He looked down at his plate with a smidgen of incredulity. And then laughed softly.
‘Fifty years of this’ he said. ‘Too late to learn now eh.’
She smiled and shuffled towards him. He felt his nerves inexplicably jangle. A sensation once more cut short as another knock at the door came. Only this time he didn’t even have time to muster up a new cry of outrage as the door flew open and a young man and woman, both barely out of their teens, burst in – the man dressed in what seemed to be an old-time cinema usher’s outfit and the woman in a waitress’ pinny. The woman picked up both plates without a word, quickly wiped the table, and exited the room. The man suddenly produced a box of popcorn and two paper Coca-Cola cups from behind his back, placing both on the table. He tipped his hat to both of them and then exited as swiftly as he’d come in, flicking the light switch off and closing the door as he stepped out of the flat. The old man spun round, looking towards the door, the room now shrouded in darkness. He was about to raise himself from the couch when he felt her loop her arm around his and lean into him affectionately. He glanced down at her, mildly shocked, as she smiled up at him. Just then a whirring sound reverberated around the room, startling them out of their all-to-brief romantic repose. A light flickered on the large projector screen in front of them before a burst of colour shakily invaded the screen. That well-known snow-peaked mountain flashed up, an upside down horseshoe of white stars lying over it, surrounding the words ‘A Paramount Picture’.
Fifth Avenue, New York. He’d seen this scene before. He’d seen that yellow cab before. In fact, this was, yes, this is…there she is. Those famous sunglasses, the black silk gloves, the perfect hair tied up in a bun, the small brown bag with the danish in it, the coffee in her other hand. Gazing in the windows at Tiffany’s jewellery store. Having her breakfast. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn. God, she was beautiful. The pinnacle Hollywood starlet. He looked on open-mouthed. He felt a nudge in his side and looked down to see her cheekily smiling up at him. She’d always playfully teased him about Audrey Hepburn. How she was his ‘true love’ through all these years. She’d even named the bloody dog after her, after all. He smiled half-heartedly, trying to shake off his sudden embarrassment. She sniggered before cuddling into him, sighing in a dreamy fashion. He put his arm around her as he felt a sudden urge to hold onto her protectively, to never let go. He felt his eyes water slightly before turning away, silently admonishing himself for his daft behaviour. They sat and watched the movie, her cuddled into him, picking through the box of popcorn. When Audrey Hepburn started plucking the guitar and singing Moon River in that iconic scene, the old man sat up.
‘That’s the tune, that’s the one the barber was whistling!’ he said.
She looked up at him, smiling almost sleepily and clutching his arm closer. She stepped up off the couch, taking his hand and pulling him from the couch. The projector screen faded to black but if anything, the music grew louder, Hepburn’s dulcet tones serenading the two of them as they held on to each other, swaying to the music in the middle of the room. Her head resting on his shoulder. The old man felt bliss wash over him, the world seemed to merge with the music, slowing to a waltz.
He glanced up, catching sight of the two of them reflected in the television set in the corner of the room. He blinked hard, trying to adjust his eyesight. They were younger, both of them. In their early twenties. Him with the slicked-back hair and wearing the suit borrowed from his old man, her in the yellow and white polka dot dress. And then it all came flooding back to him. The meal in the cafe on Byres Road; the movie at the Grosvenor on Ashton Lane afterwards; the slow-dancing at the music hall after that when Moon River had come on – her request of course. His first date with the love of his life. His first date with Annie. October 1961. The happiest night of his life. It had always been the happiest night of his life. Yes, they were together almost fifty years and had many a happy night over the years; their wedding, anniversaries, mundane weeknights. But that was the night he knew he’d found her; the one he would spend his life with, the one he would share his world with.
The couple swayed back and forth, their arms entwined, shuffling as one. Moon River resounding around the room, the violins climbing to a crescendo. On the sideboard sat a black and white framed picture of the two of them in their younger years; her with a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates in her hand, him wearing a suit clearly one or two sizes too big for him. Both with smiles as wide as the Clyde. On the floor next to the armchair Audrey lay sleeping, her tail occasionally wagging through her doze. Above her sat the old man, his arms dangling down from the chair. Lifeless, cold. The disparate grey hairs on his head listless. His eyes vacant but open. A content smile etched across his face.