HE AIN’T LAGER
“It sounds horrible,” Elspeth topped up her glass of wine, moving over towards the large French windows, “but I don’t want them here, even for a drink. I’ve lost count ay the number ay Christmas’ they’ve ruined. And it’s been such a nice day…”
She waved the bottle at her husband Greg, who shook his head. “C’mon honey, we have to suck it up,” his voice dropped to a whisper and he looked to the hall, “for your mum’s sake.”
A convulsive sob exploded through Elspeth. “I know… it could be her last Christmas…” From Greg’s viewpoint, she briefly disappeared behind the large tree, opening the patio windows, and stepping outside, where he saw her lighting a cigarette. Greg shivered as the cold air invaded the room. He watched Elspeth take a drag, then another, her cheeks buckling inwards. Then she stubbed it out, came inside and took it to the kitchen, ran it under the tap and put it into the rubbish.
Returning to the lounge, she saw Greg look at her in sorrowful accusation. “I know, I know, I’ve started again… Frank’s got me a fuckin’ bag of nerves already,” she declared, her tones descending to a hiss, as Val Begbie, stick-thin, frail, her chemo wig slightly askew, came into the room.
Elspeth eased her mother, so floaty and unsubstantial, down into the recliner. “The boys in their beds?” Val croakingly enquired, referring to her two young grandsons, George and Thomas.
“Aye. They wanted to stay up and see their Uncle Joe and Uncle Frank, but like that’s gaunny happen…”
Val was about to declare a partisan confidence in her sons that she didn’t feel, when the doorbell rang and her almost hairless brows rose in vindication.
Elspeth opened up, and Frank stood before her. She’d anticipated the porridge prison pallor, but he seemed tanned and fit, and above all, sober. Even less expected was the fact that he had company. “This is Melanie,” he announced, introducing a stunning, elegantly dressed blonde woman, who looked to be in her late 20s.
“Pleased to meet you,” Melanie said with a big toothsome American smile, and matching accent.
“You too…” Elspeth took their coats and led them through to the lounge. As they sat down and went through the introductions, she noted Frank, like Melanie, had refused Greg’s proffered drink, both opting for water. As Melanie sipped hers, Elspeth, Val and Greg gaped at her in a silence the hostess felt compelled to break. “So where did you two meet?
The question was innocuous but the tone set Greg’s teeth on edge. “Honey, don’t.”
“It’s just a simple question!”
As Melanie glanced at Frank, Elspeth noted that the American, unlike his previous consorts, didn’t seem intimidated by her brother. And he seemed strangely calm, with no sign of that trademark under-lit chaos behind his eyes. “That’s okay,” Melanie continued, “I gotta friend who’s an art therapist at the prison. She curated the show, the one where they exhibited a couple of Frank’s paintings.”
“Yes,” Greg bristled with enthusiasm, “I read the piece in the Scotsman. Well done Frank!”
“He was ey good at drawing,” Val remarked audibly, but almost to herself. “As a bairn, like. “
The eyes of the room fell on Frank, who remained silent, seeming to wrestle with something internally, his eyes and mouth tightening.
Melanie smiled: “I liked the work, and I got a collector friend interested. He purchased them. Obviously, we wanted to meet the artist and… she looked to Frank.”
“Melanie met me in prison,” Frank brusquely proclaimed.
Elspeth rolled her eyes, and recharged her wine glass: “Aw aye, here we go.”
Val loudly pursed her dry, pleated lips, as Greg shot his wife a look of dismay.
“Then I got oot, intae the halfway house,” Frank said.
“Thought ah’d see mair ay ye, that’s aw ah’m sayin’,” Val stared at her son.
“I’m afraid that’s my fault, Mrs Beg… Val,” Melanie said. “Frank’s been spending a lot of time with me down in London.”
“Look,” Frank said, “it’s cairds on the table time,” and his and Melanie’s hand linked in a near-silent vestibular motion. “We’re getting married and we’re moving tae California.”
As Val curled down her bottom lip, Elspeth spat out her wine and exploded in laughter. She was aware for the first time that her brother seemed to be angry, so she looked to Melanie. “Sorry… ye just don’t seem his type!”
“Well congratulations to you both,” Greg sang. “We should open some Champers!”
Melanie met Elspeth’s gaze evenly. “So tell me, are you Greg’s type?”
Elspeth was taken aback. She went to speak but couldn’t. Greg smiled and trilled: “Well, we’re two kids and a killer mortgage on this place into the relationship, so I certainly hope so!”
Just then, Val went into a coughing fit, prompting her daughter to rush to her aid. “Easy mum…” as Val’s lungs creaked, gulping desperately at the oxygen in the room, Elspeth rubbernecked to the others, “Nae word on Joe? Naebody phone him? “
“Ah tried,” Frank said, “he’s no pickin’ up.”
“So how’s the probation coming along, Frank? Probation officer not…” Greg cleared his throat, winked at Melanie, and spoke in a bad American wise guy accent, “not bustin’ your balls? Or parole officer, as they say in the movies!“
Frank Begbie looked at his brother-in-law. “What you on aboot?”
“Sorry, I’ve been watching too much Sopranos. Got the boxed set. You seen it?”
“Nup, dinnae watch telly, ay.”
Then the doorbell rang and Elspeth rose from settling Val, to let Joe in. He looked unkempt in a tatty old fleece, holey jeans and wrecked trainers. His eyes were bleary as they took in the room. “This is cosy,” he sneered. Then he looked at Val. “How’s ma wee Ma? How’s that chemo been gaun?”
“It takes an awfay loat oot ay ye,” Val said, just regaining her breath.
“Yir a fighter but Ma,” Joe said curtly, then his eyes fell on Melanie, as Greg pushed a can of Stella into his hand.
“Knew you were lager,” Greg smiled.
“What?” Joe snapped belligerently, but opened the can anyway.
“Yuv missed aw oor Frank’s news,” Elspeth said, anxious to divert the rancour spilling from her oldest brother.
“This is my girlfriend, Melanie,” Frank confirmed. “She’s an artist, fae California. We’re getting married, n gaun ower thaire tae live,” he looked at Melanie, then round the faces of his family, adding, “But there’s mair… thir’s a bairn oan the way, ay.”
Elspeth regarded Melanie in wide-eyed horror and gasped, “Jesus Christ, ah’ve heard it aw now!”
Melanie ignored her, and squeezed Frank’s hand.
“New bairns… California… paintins…” Joe closed one eye, fixing Frank in the other, “is this whit wir gittin now then, eh?”
“Aye,” Frank said softly, as the temperature in the room seemed to drop.
“N this place… you…” Joe pointed at Elspeth, “Ah notice wir no good enough tae sit doon tae a meal wi ye, me n Frank, n this California lassie… but ye huv us roond fir drinks once the bairns are aw tucked up in bed…”
“It’s too much for muh ma!”
“Whae’s sais? Ah dinnae hear hur sayin nowt”
Val started to sob, “Ah jist wanted it tae be a nice Christmas.”
Elspeth met Joe’s belligerent gape and threw him back a paint-stripping glare, rasping, “You’ve got tae go. Now. You’re upsetting Ma.”
“What ye talkin aboot?” Joe shouted, then staggered back and fell through the coffee table with an almighty crash. Glass shot everywhere as the metal legs buckled. There was chaos; the two boys came downstairs crying, as Frank and Greg attended to Joe and Elspeth comforted Val. Melanie approached the upset children. “Hi, I’m Melanie…”
They looked at her, all agog.
“I’m gonna be your Aunt. I’m getting married to your Uncle Frank. Your Uncle Joe had an accident and fell over, but he’s gonna be okay. But listen, I wanna get to know you guys! You wanna show me what you got for Christmas?”
The boys nodded in wary enthusiasm, and the youngest, Thomas, let Melanie take his hand as she led them upstairs. Elspeth mouthed a guilty, shameful ‘thanks’ at her as they departed.
Frank had Joe on his feet, and was supporting him, while pushing Greg aside. “Ah’ll take him ootside. Get him some air, then intae a taxi.“
“I’ll help,” Greg said.
“Naw, ah’ll manage,” Frank said rigidly, then snapped at Joe, “C’moan you!”
“Where will ye take him,” Val pleaded, in sudden panic.
“Just outside and up the street,” Frank said, and Greg nodded and opened the door for them, watching the Begbie brothers lurch off into the night.
Elspeth went upstairs, where Melanie helped her settle the boys back down. Greg comforted Val, and cleaned up the broken glass. “He’s livin rough now, our Joe, Val sniffed. “No oan the streets, but on folks’ couches.”
Greg looked at the broken, shattered table, then at the decorated tree and the stone fireplace. He just about managed to forgive Joe.
Frank was gone for almost an hour. When he reappeared, they sat tensely in the lounge, as Melanie talked about California and her family.
Suddenly, Val looked at her youngest son. “What did ye dae tae oor Joseph?”
“Nowt. Like ah sais, ah just goat um in a taxi. Gave um 20 bar: wisnae a good move tae gie an alky that,” Frank shrugged. “Eh’d be oot the cab, intae the first boozer n causing bother. Ah’ll lay ye even money eh’s in the A n E now.”
“But you… you didnae hurt yir brother, did ye, Frank? No at Christmas, son! No at yir mother’s last Christmas!”
“Dinnae fuss ma. It’s awright,” Frank softly cooed.
Elspeth, wine glass and bottle in her hands, stared at him. “You’re telling us that ye never battered him?”
“Why would ah dae that?” Frank shook his head as if she was crazy. “He’s ma brother.”
“Because you’re you?” Elspeth’s chin jutted out in defiance. “Because it’s what you’ve always done?”
“Ex convicts get stigmatised enough by society,” Melanie cut in, shaking her head, “Frank’s been on a long, difficult journey to control his anger and anxiety issues and I think he might deserve some support from his own family!”
“I’m sorry, Elspeth said, “but I dinnae think you ken anything aboot what he deserves fae this family!”
“Elspeth, please,” Greg pleaded.
Elspeth remained focused on Melanie, “Dinnae get me wrong. I like you. My kids like you. You’re a good person. So that’s why I’m telling you,” and she glanced at Frank, “you do not know what you are getting yourself into!”
“You’re drunk,” Frank said to his sister, “and you’re makin’ a fool ay yirsel.”
“What you tryin’ tae say? That yuv changed? You’ve no changed! You’ll never change!”
“And that’s what you want, ay,” Frank said evenly. “That would suit you, if ah wis tae cause a scene n start kickin off. That would affirm the cosy wee natural order ay things; jakey Joe, bad boy Frank and golden girl Elspeth. Well, you’ll no get that satisfaction fae me. Ah’ve done that maist ay ma life, n it husnae worked, cause ah’ve spent maist ay ma life n jail. So now ah’m daein something different, like avoidin negativity. It’s all yours,” he said, rising, “Enjoy.”
Melanie was also climbing out off the couch. “Yes, I think we should go.”
“You have to stop this honey,” Greg said, as Frank and Melanie bade the coughing Val farewell, and departed into the night.
“So ah’m the bad one now!” Elspeth wailed.
Outside, Frank and Melanie walked for a while in the dank cold, before picking up a taxi on the main road. “Frank, Melanie began, “we said we were never going to have secrets from each other. Did you hurt Joe?”
“No,” Frank Begbie said, looking Melanie straight in the eye. “Like ah sais, he’s my brother! Dinnae let them upset ye, and he held her close.” Melanie shivered, still feeling the cold, even in the cab. “Tell ye what, ah’ll be glad tae get tae California,” Frank said, “too cauld here, ay.”
He Ain’t Lager by Irvine Welsh was first published in The Big Issue on November 25, 2013