The wine was in a cardboard box. Andrew was on his fourth glass.
‘Are you not drinking a wee bit too much?’ said Dug. ‘You’ve got to drive us back.’
Ah, thought Andrew. Someone else offering to mother me. Trying to keep me on the straight and narrow. Dug as mother substitute. I should feel spoiled. Moira? If it were up to her I’d be drunk every night. She likes the fact that I pass out when I’ve had one too many. But let us return to the theme! ‘It’s not about forging friendships,’ Andrew said. ‘It’s about putting your face around so your name gets printed on a page somewhere.’
‘Sounds like using people to me,’ said Dug.
‘Absolutely right!’ said Andrew, and pressed the button on the box. The wine trickled out. ‘There’s a lot of it about.’
‘Really?’ said Dug.
‘Oh, come on,’ said Andrew. He took a long mouthful. It was chewy. The bottom of the box. The dregs were probably alive with scurf from the wine pressers’ feet. It tasted nice, though. ‘How many times do we have to have this conversation? Writers, artists, musicians – they’re all tarred with the same brush. You’ve said so yourself, your friend Mooney...’
‘Not a friend,’ Dug corrected him.
‘...whatever. The only thing they’re interested in is M-E, and I’m not talking about yuppie flu. The art, if we are lucky, comes as a welcome by-product, but let’s be honest, their heads are jammed up their arses.’
Dug had to agree.
‘Writers are the worst of the lot,’ Andrew went on. ‘Your hero – yes, yes, sorry, ex-hero – Scotchboy, is a case in point. I’ve only met him once, but he’s a nyaff. Who cares if he camped out at Glastonbury in 1973? Of course, the question you now want to raise is ‘Did he?’, and that’s fine, but his publisher is only pandering to a fad. I glanced at his latest offering earlier on. From assorted typefaces he’s moved on to coloured typefaces! I mean, come on, Dug, it’s the kind of thing B.Ed. students are told to avoid on their first day at the teacher trainers. The Cardinal Sin of Bad Presentation. Of course, his publisher will be spending loads of money on marketing – he’ll have to. Have you any idea how much it costs to do a print run in coloured ink? No, Slim Scotchboy has come and gone. And if he hasn’t, he’ll keep churning out the same guff till his next three book deal expires. Just you wait and see.’
A small smile was playing at the corners of Dug’s mouth. ‘You’re contradicting yourself,’ he said. ‘Going by what you’re saying, you should be going out of your way to cultivate a friendships with people like Melville McCroft’
‘But I don’t need anything off him,’ said Andrew, bluntly.
‘And I do?’ said Dug.
‘It’s the way of the world, Dug, especially when you’re young. Oops, now’s your chance.’
The man was shuffling through the crowd, his watery old eyes trying to focus on the vision before him. He slowly circled the boy, the sickly old shark that he was, taking in the spectacle: the overcoat, the floppy hair and the pallor. What an old git. Hands off, he’s mine, Andrew wanted to say. But his relationship with Dug was way beyond that now.
‘So you’ve studied Greek, young man?’ said McCroft. He handed Dug a fresh glass of wine. Every Glasgow Writers’ Circle shopping lister was crammed into the room, all of them craning their necks, envious of the attention being bestowed on this nobody.
‘Yes,’ said Dug. ‘I did the Anabasis for ‘O’ Grade.’
McCroft’s eyes widened as he performed mental calculations as to Dug’s age. ‘Ah, Xenophon,’ he said. ‘The sea! The sea! Although I’m much more of a Plato man myself.’
‘Aye,’ Dug laughed. ‘I’ve met him.’
McCroft leaned in. ‘Really?’ he said. Andrew caught a whiff of the perfume – Aramis meets pipe tobacco. Young poets beware, he wanted to shout. The man was not to be trusted. It was time to put a stop to this...
‘It’s a long story,’ said Dug. ‘I read Book 1 of The Republic at Uni.’
‘Mmm,’ said McCroft. ‘The standard introduction. In translation, of course?’
Andrew fashioned a fist with the fingers of his left hand and coughed lightly into it.
‘Yes, I see you, Andrew,’ said McCroft, although his eyes never left Dug. ‘Well, young man, I hope you enjoyed my poems this evening.’
‘Aye,’ said Dug. ‘The one you did about Nemesis – the story of my life!’
The old fraud looked crestfallen; Andrew had to stifle a smirk. Then he thought, fuck it, and let it shine.
‘Oh, that wasn’t one of mine,’ McCroft admitted. ‘I did that as a wee nod to Norman – he’s hovering about somewhere.’ He smiled, and offered a hand. ‘However, I’m glad we, eh, connected.’
‘Is there anywhere I can buy your book?’ said Dug.
Andrew let out a laugh; a guffaw. Your book?! He’d have to remember that one.
McCroft, reluctantly, turned to him. ‘How’s it going, Andrew?’ he said, his voice devoid of interest. ‘Still typing out other people’s poetry? Not mine, I hope. It’s rather too well known to be of any use to you.’
Andrew felt his face reddening, but checked it. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it, Melville,’ he smiled. ‘I don’t write for the teenage market.’
McCroft’s left eyelid twitched. He raised his voice slightly to an effeminate grate. ‘Wagging tongues would have it ,’ he said, ‘that one of your recent efforts in the SPO was more than insignificantly inspired by my ‘Margaret in Half-Light’.’
‘Not at all,’ said Andrew.
‘And as for cribbing the scribblings of the insane,’ said McCroft. He still had a grip of Dug, who was following this doe-eyed. ‘Don’t get me wrong, Andrew. Rumour and whispering are things I abhor, but plagiarism is something...’
‘Yes,’ said Andrew. He positioned his glass under the box and pressed the button. A red bubble appeared at the end of the plastic then sucked itself back up the nozzle. ‘It’s a terrible thing.’
McCroft’s tone changed in an instant. He sounded like an angry teacher berating an errant pupil. Pretentious old wanker. Everyone knew that his career was built on ripping off Norman MacCaig something rotten. He’d proved it earlier on, for Christ’s sake. ‘It stinks, Andrew!’ he shouted, killing every conversation in the room. ‘By the way, young man – oh, it’s Dug, is it? – if you do any writing yourself – original writing, I mean – why not send something along to the SPO? I’ll be lowering myself into the editor’s chair in a few weeks. The current incumbent has decided to move on to something slightly more remunerative. Nothing to do with writing poetry, of course.’
Andrew’s hand tightened round his glass. He inhaled slowly to stop the whine that was forming in his throat.
‘Same goes for you, Andrew,’ said McCroft. He winked at Dug and moved off into the crowd.