Plain Speaking

A few weeks ago S. came to stay. I meet her from the airport bus and we went round the corner to the café at the Fruitmarket Gallery for a coffee. She’d flown in from Aldergrove (Belfast) to Edinburgh. On that flight, you’re no sooner up in the air than you’re about to land. Even though the flight time is only 35 minutes, there is a trolley service. Hostesses rush down the aisle to serve what they can. S. told me about the man seated beside her. A plain speaking gent, of the mid-Ulster variety, with a good strong accent and a carrying voice. She had the accent down pat as she told me what he said. “A can of Heineken and a chicken baguette, please.” The air-hostess passed him the beer explaining, “Sorry Sir, but we’ve got no chicken baguettes today. We’ve got chicken-tikka focaccia though.”Foc-what?” came his answer. S. said that those seated around him erupted in giggles, but she’s pretty sure he knew not of his inadvertent swearing. “It’s a type of flatbread, Sir,” the air-hostess explained, patiently. “Sure all bread’s flat”, came his genuinely puzzled retort. He kept going, “And what’s chicken tikka?”It’s a lightly spiced curried chicken, sir. I really must keep moving, this is a short flight”, she was chivvying him along. “Ah jaysus, no. Curry repeats on me. I’ll just have another Heinekin so.” We laughed at his meal replacement strategy, not so far removed from some folk we knew.

That weekend S. and I went to see David Sedaris, an American humourist and author, speak in the Usher Hall. Much of Sedaris’s self-deprecating humour is drawn from the everyday: his family, friends, people watching, snatches of conversation. I hadn’t heard of him before, but he almost filled the large and imposing Usher Hall. He read two longish pieces, each lasting about half an hour. Not short stories, so much as memoir-type writing. Then he read some shorter, staccato, stand-alone excerpts from his diaries – a little shocking and risqué. He was wonderful and held the audience. I came away with fresh resolve to nurture my ability to watch, observe, recount, and laugh at life unfolding around me. For every one story of sadness and despair, there are two more of people being kind, funny, goofy, and everyday heroic, if we care to notice them. “You’ve got what he has, you’re just as funny,” I told S. later when we were sharing stories from our past. Her ‘Meg Ryan Blue Sunglasses’ story had me dying with laughter.

Some days afterwards I was walking up Abbey Mount, close to the Parliament. Two men were just ahead of me, ambling, in no rush – an after-work paced walk. The new ‘watchful me’ took them in: well-dressed, not suited, but tweeds, autumnal hued corduroys and brown brogues. Political advisors working in the Parliament? Perhaps. University Professors? Maybe. As I got closer to them, I heard one say to the other, in genteel Edinburgh tones, (he was speaking loudly, I wasn’t entirely eavesdropping) “Yes, yes, I know you mostly get it up there, but mine is down there and it doesn’t look at all right. Do you think I should see a Doctor?” I overtook them at this point and caught the speaker’s eye. He smiled, unashamedly. I nodded, and walked on quickly. Now, if I was David Sedaris, I thought to myself, I would embellish that story and publish it in the New Yorker!

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