They went downstairs. Andrew was aware of something small and uncomfortable clinging to the side of his neck, like a nascent goitre; being an award winner (and what an award!), Andrew was deemed acceptable company. There was no way Slim would be mixing it with the haikuists and Top Tips contributors who formed the majority at the Writers’ Circle, no matter how many haiku and Top Tips they’d had published. Just as they sat down at a corner table, Dug walked in. Andrew raised a hand. ‘Dug!’ he shouted. ‘Over here!’
Dug pulled his coat tighter and negotiated a path through the bodies. He looked upset. Of course he did. He thought he’d missed the show.
‘What’s your pleasure?’ said Andrew.
‘Pint of Guinness,’ said Dug, and squeezed in beside Slim.
‘You’re slightly late,’ said Andrew.
‘Don’t I know it,’ said Dug.
‘No problem,’ said Andrew, and went to the bar. He watched Dug sitting there, next to the stranger. Didn’t he recognise him? Surely he’d seen photographs? They weren’t even boring each other with small talk. Slim was scanning the bar for journalists in need of an interview while Dug stared angrily at the floor.
Andrew laid the beer on the table. ‘You two seem to have hit it off,’ he said.
‘Cheers,’ said Dug, and lifted his drink.
Andrew arranged himself just-so in his chair. He was looking forward to the following exchange. ‘Dug,’ he said. ‘Meet Slim Scotchboy.’
Dug turned in his seat. His jaw actually dropped open.
‘Slim,’ said Andrew, ‘this is Dug Lloyd, Grangeburn’s burning white hot literary hope for the future.’
‘Awright there, Dug?’ said Slim.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Dug managed. ‘You’re the reason I started writing!’
‘Oh, pleeeeeease!’ said Slim, and waved a skinny hand in the air as if he were autographing the boy’s oxygen supply.
Andrew couldn’t stop his teeth grinding slightly. ‘Yes, indeed,’ he said. ‘If you want to know the ins and outs of the Past Perfect, Dug’s your man.’
‘Aye?’ said Slim.
‘Eh, aye,’ said Dug. He was squirming around like a besotted teenage girl. ‘I’ve got a Preparatory Certificate in EFL. English as a Foreign Language.’
Slim whipped a notebook out of his donkey jacket and licked the end of a pencil that had been hiding behind his ear. ‘Good title for a Scotsman’s book,’ he said, and scrawled something on a clean page. When he was finished, he looked up. Then he looked back at the page and turned the notebook slightly so it was visible to one and all. He fashioned a large © at the end of the scribble. What an arse.
‘You reckon?’ said Dug, amazed that something that had come out of his mouth was deemed worthy of...
Christ, thought Andrew. Any more of this and I’m going to vomit.
‘Just make sure ye write as much as possible,’ said Slim. ‘That’s the only advice I can give ye.’
It was all Dug could do to stop himself etching the remark on a beermat and getting Slim to sign it; and getting Slim to sign it would have presented no problem, Andrew was sure. But this was exactly the kind of advice Andrew had been dishing out for months. Without the fawning response, he was rather put out to note.
‘Ye working?’ said Slim.
‘Aye,’ Dug trembled. ‘I’m teaching in a Primary School.’
‘So ye’ve been to Uni, then?’
Dug hesitated. How would the information about his halcyon University days sit with someone who had carved out a semi-autobiographical niche in tales of rock concert-goers and drug-taking tramps? ‘Aye,’ he said, eventually. ‘The University of Scotland. Philosophy.’
‘That right?’ said Slim. ‘I was there, too. Contemporary Scottish Literature.’ He sniffed. ‘First Class Honours, like.’
There was a crash as the barman fumbled a wet beer glass, though it could just as easily have been the sound of Dug’s illusion shattering. Andrew was surprised, too. And more than a little delighted.
‘What?’ said Slim. ‘D’ye no think that squares with yarns about sleeping rough?’
Dug picked up his glass. He didn’t drink anything. He laid it heavily on the table and stared at it.
‘Oh, here we go,’ said Slim. He yawned, and looked at his watch. ‘Ye know how many times I’ve had this conversation? It’s a pain in the slats. I’ll put it this way. There’s a grain of truth in the fiction, right? ‘Grain’ being a measure of something really small. And fiction being, well, fiction.’
‘I sense disappointment radiating in waves,’ said Andrew.
‘Anyway,’ said Slim, and slapped his palms on his knees. ‘That’s me. Got to get back up the road.’ Deirdre Boyce approached and handed him a wee brown envelope.
‘That’ll be your bus fare,’ Dug pouted.
‘Aye,’ said Slim. ‘Beats putting the bite on cunts outside supermarkets, eh? Nice meeting ye, Andrew. Come through the Third Eye next week, I’m doing a thing with Jimmy Kelman and Norman MacCaig. Should be good.’
‘I’ll check my diary,’ said Andrew.
Slim scouted the bar for autograph hunters. Someone at Deirdre’s table waved to him. He was there in a flash.