© Perry Iles
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
Malkie McQuinn was hard. He was from Glasgow, so it went with the territory, but Malkie was fucking rock. He was so tough he’d eat vegetarian quiche in front of lorry drivers. He was essentially monosyllabic, and left his long-term partner, Laura, to do most of the talking. Rosie and I would often call in to see them of an evening. They lived in a flat by the seaside in a suburb of Edinburgh. In the summer there would be fires on the beach. In the winter, the winds howled in off the water and slapped sandy rain against the windows. We’d hide from the elements, smoke industrial quantities of marijuana and drink black coffee.
Malkie saw everything as a challenge, including, as a Glaswegian, the very idea of living in Edinburgh. If Malkie rolled a spliff, there would be very little tobacco in it. If he made coffee, he’d get the old Bodum cafetiere down from the kitchen shelf and half fill it with the strongest Columbian blend he could find. We’d drink the resulting sludge, have heart palpitations and stay awake until the weekend. Although Malkie saw cafetieres as proof of homosexuality, he realised he could up the ante by using them to make much stronger coffee than simply by emptying a heaped tablespoon of instant into a chipped mug and adding boiling water.
‘Lovely coffee, Malkie,’ I’d say
‘Aye,’ he’d reply.
But Laura ruled the family, generally by virtue of directing Malkie from behind, then presenting her decisions as Malkie’s own. She was a small, round woman, about a foot shorter than Malkie, but twice as fierce. They had two children, a boy and a girl. It was enough for Laura, who had to treat Malkie as a grown up child anyway.
When Rosie discovered she was pregnant, Laura gave her the sort of advice you’d never have got from Doctor Spock.
‘See when yir ready, likes? Eftir yir watters pop. Dinnae fuck aboot. Afore ye phone the doaktor, caw the ambliance ’n’ aw that shite? Smoke this fucker. Go on an’ take it home and put it in yir knicker drawer.’
She gave Rosie a long, tapering tube. It was one of Malkie’s spliffs. The idea was for Rosie to have a relaxed childbirth. As soon as her waters burst, she was to smoke it before alerting anyone, even me. (‘He’ll be a fuckin waste ay space anyways, hen.’) The resulting state of euphoric relaxation should make it possible for Rosie to have a ten-minute labour and drop the frog pretty much on the maternity hospital’s doormat. After this, according to Laura, all that would remain would be to clip it round the ear and tell it to fuck off down the offie for ten Embassy Regal and a bottle of Lambrini.
‘Fucker worked fae me baith times, eh Malkie?’ Laura said, as her four year old daughter entered the room struggling under the weight of a two-litre bottle of piss-coloured alcopop.
‘Aye,’ Malkie replied.
Rosie and I staggered home in our habitually illegal state of mind, and Rosie put the Portobello parsnip into the top drawer of the bedside cabinet. But during the weeks that followed a strange change came over us. We gave up smoking, I stopped drinking unless it was the weekend and we banned alcohol and drugs from the house. Rosie went vegetarian and bought a ten kilo pack of dried TVP mince. I tried it once and used the rest as cat litter.
Laura accused Rosie of adopting the Edinburgh approach to pregnancy and childbirth. ‘It’s no how ah’d’ve done it,’ she said. Rosie and I rationed our visits to Laura and Malkie to once a week, but came home passively stoned nonetheless. We discussed water-births and made a list of what sort of music we’d have the midwife play over the delivery room sound-system. (I won; Charlotte came into the world to the sound of The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill by Husker Du. Ten minutes earlier, and it would have been Sonic Youth’s Hot-wire My Heart.)
In comparison to Malkie and Laura, we were softies. ‘Fuckin soft as shite and twice as slippery, the pair ay yis,’ Laura said, ‘eh, Malkie?’
But where I come from, we employ people to soften our croissants for us. Our coffee is decaffeinated and our lager is cold-filtered and served in attractively designed half-pint glasses. Our cigarettes are Silk Cut, which is an expensive way of not really smoking at all. When I moved north, I tried to bring my southern ways to Scotland with me. Malkie came round once and pointed at the vegetable rack.
‘It’s a courgette, Malkie,’ I replied.
‘Git tae fuck.’
‘Fancy a cup of tea?’
‘Gotny Tennant’s Special?’
Laura had breezed through pregnancy both times. She smoked, she drank, she did all the things you shouldn’t, went stoned to hospital, popped out two healthy children with the minimum of fuss and went home again. But Rosie’s pregnancy was fraught with difficulties. Strange headaches, stomach pain, constipation and all-day morning sickness. She said it was like having a nine-month hangover. Then her body produced too many relaxation hormones and the bones in her pelvis came apart. She described her hips as like having a bunch of logs rattling around in a carrier bag. She was in agony for months, the water birth was forgotten and when Charlotte finally arrived, Rosie had been in labour for twenty seven hours.
‘I am never, ever going to do that again,’ was her final word in the subject.
Through all of this, Laura’s joint had stayed in the bedside drawer, unsmoked.
Laura had come to the same decision. Her family was complete. One child of each gender, plus Malkie. It was enough.
‘Malkie’s gan tae the hoaspital the morn,’ she said one day. ‘He’s gaun tae get it snipped. He’s wanting his hole aw the time, so I says tae um “yir no comin near me wi that, if it’s no got a jaykit oan.” I got him telt. So he’s gonnae huv a vacuumery, whitivver ye caw it.’
‘God. You OK with that, Malkie?’ I asked him
‘Aye,’ said Malkie, biting off a fingernail that had been irritating him and spitting it into the fireplace.
So off he went.
The old Edinburgh Infirmary is a gothic pile of a place, all towers and turrets and grey stone. It was built in an era before cars, and it was almost impossible to find a parking place anywhere near it. Laura dropped Malkie at the entrance and searched for a place big enough to park their rusty transit van. It took her nearly an hour to find a space and walk back to the hospital. Laura told us she found Malkie at the entrance, smoking a joint just downwind of the crowded smokers’ area. Malkie told her that the operation had been performed. It had taken about fifteen minutes, and he was irritated that it had interrupted his ability to chain-smoke, so he’d skipped the two-hour wait for a post-op check-up and sneaked away.
Laura didn’t believe him. She thought he’d chickened out, so he looked her in the eye and dropped his trousers in a discreet doorway, and sure enough there the evidence was. Two little butterfly stitches poking out from a small bandage.
‘Aw, Malkie, the doaktor’s put a wee bow in yir baws. That’s right lovely, so it is.’
‘Bows? Cunt,’ said Malkie.
He went back to work the next day, and I met him in the pub a couple of nights later.
‘Does it hurt?’ I asked him.
He took a long pull at his pint of Tennants. ‘Naw,’ he said. I noticed that his only concession to discomfort was that he stood at the bar instead of perching on his usual barstool.
He was fine, it was easy.
So when Rosie decided never to have any more children, I elected to follow Malkie’s example. We were round at Malkie and Laura’s one evening, when I told them. Malkie looked unimpressed. Laura reached out for Charlotte.
‘Gie’s Charlie ower here,’ she said. Rosie passed her across. ‘It’ll be better fir aw ay yous,’ Laura said without removing her joint from her mouth, absently brushing ash off my daughter’s face.
They’ve built a new hospital in Edinburgh. It’s out near the bypass, and the road that leads to it gives beautiful views across to the hills and down to the sea. It was a lovely final view for a condemned man, I thought, as I drove down towards the entrance.
Rosie stroked my arm, mouthing platitudes of reassurance. ‘Malkie said it was fine. No after-effects. We can have that nice bottle of wine when you get home and I’ll order in a Chinese for you,’ she said. Charlotte slept in the back of the car, propped up in her car seat, her head slumped to one side and her left arm clutching her stuffed monkey.
Parking spaces were easy to find at the new hospital. You had to pay for them, so most people walked or came by bus. I squared my shoulders, heaved a sigh and walked in through the main doors, wearing a man’s-got-to-do-what-a-man’s-got-to-do expression.
I hate having my bits fiddled with. Sometime previously I’d had kidney stones, and the hospital wanted to examine me. I thought this would entail a few people in white coats looking thoughtfully at an x-ray of my insides and muttering amongst themselves, but when I got there, I was told that they were going to put a camera up into my bladder via the obvious route and just have a look about. Picturing awful visions of having a few nurses trying to ram a Pentax up my hog’s eye, I made my excuses and left. It would have been like trying to shove a cricket ball up a garden hose, I reasoned.
The kidney stone found its own way out in the end. It was the most painful thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve heard the pain level is on a par with childbirth, which Rosie told me was like trying to shit a medicine ball and knowing you’d have to succeed. If men had to have babies, the human race would be extinct before two generations had passed, put it that way. But the kidney stone, and the mental image of something going the wrong way up what is basically an exit tube, made a lasting and rather unpleasant impression upon me.
Compared to that kind of pain, a vasectomy would be nothing, I reasoned. I was shown into a room where several other men sat, with their legs crossed at the thigh, knee and ankle in anticipation. I picked up a three-year-old copy of Caravanner’s Weekly and waited my turn. This was the kind of magazine that would probably turn suddenly interesting in about half an hour. It represented my future; the idea of sipping tea instead of drinking beer, curling up on the fireside rug like a sleepy old tomcat, all thought of adventure gone forever.
Eventually a nurse came through and led me to a changing room.
‘Everything off below the waist please, and put this gown on,’ she said.
I stripped and tried to wrap myself in a gown that was too small for me. My backside peeped out of it as the nurse showed me through to the little operating room and told me to lie on my back on the central table.
‘Are you going to put me to sleep soon?’ I asked her. She smiled. One of the other nurses giggled in the background. I wondered at the sort of organisational sadism that put all the prettiest nurses on the vasectomy ward. The way things were, I couldn’t have got it up without standing on my hands, even if they’d been dressed as porno-nurses.
They put my legs into stirrups. It was a position I remembered Rosie being in during childbirth. It was a position of surrender, of abject weakness and vulnerability. I avoided looking at the nurses as the prettiest one pulled my gown up to expose my fear-shrivelled genitals, and instead I stared upwards at the small, regular holes in the ceiling tiles, pretending to myself I had an obsessive-compulsive disorder as I began to count them, trying to take my mind off everything that was about to happen.
I heard a door open at the end of the room. I looked down between my wide-open legs and watched as a man approached, dressed in a sterile blue cap and gown, wearing a disposable mask. He said nothing. There was an ominous clattering sound of surgical instruments in a metal tray at groin level, then the surgeon raised a syringe into my field of vision. It was a big syringe. You could have put down a horse with it, I thought. The surgeon gave the plunger an experimental pump. A thin spray of liquid arced from the end.
‘Bit of a scratch coming, mate,’ he said. The accent was Australian. If anyone on the face of the planet was harder than Glaswegians, it was Australians. I was about to be operated upon by a tanned surfer with blond highlights called Brad, whose operating hands would be shaking from too many lunch-time Fosters. I knew I was lost, gone forever, beyond the point of no return. It seems to be what doctors say these days, too; “a bit of a scratch coming” has replaced “this won’t hurt a bit.” When you hear the expression, you know the following procedure is going to hurt like an absolute sod.
The slow glide of cold steel into testicle made me cry out. ‘One hundred and thirty-seven! One hundred and thirty-eight!’ I shouted, as my left bollock went mercifully numb.
One of the nurses sent a questioning look towards her colleague.
‘He’s counting the holes in the ceiling tiles, Gail. Funny how many of them do that,’ the older nurse said.
The first nurse nodded. Her makeup was perfect, her breasts pushed against the nylon of her uniform. Soon such things would cease to matter. It was a release, of sorts.
I relaxed. The worst was over. All they had to do was cut a hole in my scrotum and snip a little tube now. I dared to look down at the surgeon.
He was raising the syringe again. ‘Do the right side now, mate. Bit of a scratch…’ he reached down and inwards.
Why the fuck do we have to have two bollocks? Typical bloody stupid male overkill. Like putting racing stripes across the bonnet of a bottom-of-the-range, ten year old Skoda Fellatio.
I looked at the pretty nurse. ‘Where was I?’
‘A hundred and thirty-eight.’
‘Thank you. One hundred and thirty-nine. One hundred and forty. One hundred and…owwwwwww!’
But it didn’t hurt for long. Soon I was a patch of numbness from my stomach down. I had been advised to go to the toilet before the procedure started, and I was glad that I had, because I could have pissed myself in front of all these nurses and I’d never have noticed. I’d have been lying there, making manly quips of false bravado as they mopped my brow, ignorant of the big, damp stain spreading across my crotch. It was a bit like drinking too much, only without the fun. So I lay there for about ten minutes, feeling the sensation of surgical instruments within my genitalia, pulling, tugging and snipping. I couldn’t actually feel any pain, but I wished myself unconscious all the same.
Eventually the surgeon finished. ‘There you go, mate,’ he said, ‘that’s you pumping fat-free baby-gravy from now on. Pop back in a month or so, chafe the snake into a test tube and we’ll make sure there aren’t any live rounds left in there.’ He winked at me and left the room.
The nurses helped me from the operating table and put me in a wheelchair. I felt the pretty one’s breasts brush the back of my head as she started pushing me back to the aftercare ward. No reaction. Nothing. All gone now. I thought of the barmaid in the local pub; St Kirsty, Our Lady of the Lager, we called her. No longer would I watch the movement of her spray-on jeans as she reached for the peanuts. Such things were behind me now. Now I would spend my evenings in an armchair by the fireplace, in fond remembrance of lost times. My wife would feed me, then lead me through to bed and tuck me in with cocoa and a good book. Nothing taxing, none of this literature nonsense. Something thick and wordy by a woman with three names. I had given up my nature, my essential drive, the core of my own physicality so that my wife would never have to suffer pain again. God, I felt noble. I felt saintly and sacrificial. I imagined friends saying “how are you?” and “how was it?” I imagined myself waving a dismissive hand and asking somebody to bring me some herbal tea and another muffin.
Then the anaesthetic started to wear off.
I wept for a long while. Rosie helped me upstairs to our flat and I stood in the kitchen, my legs braced apart, putting my weight through my hands onto the kitchen countertop. She made me tea and I sipped it gratefully, allowing my hands to tremble ever so slightly, sending out little ripples across the surface of the liquid. I went through to the living room, walking like John Wayne, only slower. Rosie put Charlotte to bed and went out for a takeaway. I drank wine and pushed my dinner listlessly around the plate. I ate standing up.
A while later, the doorbell rang. It was Malkie and Laura. They had two six-packs of supermarket lager and a quarter of hash. Rosie relaxed the non-smoking rule and we had a bit of a drink.
‘Does it hurt?’ Laura asked.
‘Like a bastard,’ I replied.
‘Fuckin southern jessie,’ Malkie observed.
It carried on hurting for nearly a month. I had three weeks off work, because every cloud needs a silver lining, and my bollocks looked like purple grapefruit for a fortnight. And I realised that they had lied. All of them. All these hard Scottish bastards, all these bit-of-a-scratch Australian surgeons, all the smiling nurses with their breasts, and above all, all women everywhere. It would be nothing, they all said. They’re liars, the lot of them. But when my recuperation was nearly done, I remembered something.
‘The drawer,’ I pawed weakly in the air towards Rosie’s bedside cabinet one night at bedtime.
‘What’s that, sweetheart. What do you need?’ she asked. She was getting fed up with me. I could tell, because one of her friends had broken a finger the week previously and Rosie had used the excuse to get out of the house to go and help her get her dinner ready and do her housework. Every night for a week.
‘Is it still there? From Laura and Malkie?’
‘Oh.’ Rosie reached into her drawer and searched around. It was still there. The joint that she hadn’t smoked when she’d gone into labour all that time ago. It was dried out and the paper rustled. She passed it to me and I lit it, and lying there last thing at night I got myself apocalyptically stoned, which probably accounted for the reason why I was slow on the uptake the following morning.
I woke to Rosie shaking me roughly.
‘She’s pregnant,’ Rosie said.
‘Laura. Laura’s pregnant.’
It took me a while to work out why this was important. Let’s face it, it took me a while to remember who Laura was, such was the strength of the joint Malkie had rolled some months earlier. I pieced together the relevant information as quickly as I could, and soon realised the medical impossibility of what Rosie was trying to tell me.
‘Laura? Fuck. Well, whoever he is, Malkie’s going to kill him.’
Rosie shook her head. ‘Not Laura. She’s not like that.’
‘How do you know?’
‘She’d have telt me.’
It took me a few seconds to take in the enormity of female confidences. ‘So what’s Malkie got to say about it, then?’ I asked.
‘That’s just it. She can’t find him. He’s not answering his mobile and she’s looked everywhere in the house, even under the bed and in the wardrobe.’
‘Why would he be hiding? Shouldn’t it be the other way round?’ I got out of bed and pulled on yesterday’s clothes. There was a pounding at the door, and some shouting. Rosie answered it, and I heard Laura’s voice.
‘Fuck is he? Is that fuckin basturt hidin in here?’
I walked from the bedroom to the corridor. ‘Morning, Laura,’ I said. ‘Rosie just told me the news. Um, congratulations?’
‘Congratulations fuck. Is that shitin fucker in there?’ Laura stormed past me into the bedroom and flung the sheets back. Perhaps she suspected a gay subtext, but given the circumstances I thought it unlikely. ‘Wherever the cunt is, he’s fuckin deid, by the way.’ Laura marched through to the living room and checked behind both of the sofas. I looked at Rosie, and we shared a puzzled expression. Rosie went to the kitchen, put the kettle on and put a heaped tablespoon of coffee into a small mug, along with four sugars.
‘Elastoplast. One piece of fuckin elastoplast, the glaikit big cunt,’ Laura said, ‘and I’m the fuckin mug fae fawin fae it.’
I looked at Laura, none the wiser. She pointed back at me. ‘You. You said they did it twice. Once for each baw, right?’
The operation, in all its details, would be imprinted on my mind forever. I nodded. Rosie came through from the kitchen with a steaming mug of coffee for Laura. ‘Here you go. Now calm down and tell me what’s wrong. Apart form the obvious, of course.’ Telling Laura to calm down whilst handing her a vast dose of caffeine probably wasn’t going to work, but Laura took her coffee and sat down. She began to roll a fat joint, scattering tobacco randomly across the carpet.
‘Last week. I started feelin aw pukey, like before when I was up the fuckin duff. Ah’m thinkin naw, cannae be, likes. Then I mind ae how that fucker came back from the hoaspital. Cunt wisnae even fuckin limpin. No like… no like…’ Laura pointed at me and burst into tears.
Rosie put her arms around Laura and held her as she shook and trembled. I stood there for a little while, then realised that Laura and Rosie didn’t need me hanging around. Something bad was happening here, and I was still too residually stoned to realise what it was. I took Charlotte and went out for a short walk, and popped into the Co-op on the way home for more coffee. I found Malkie in there, lurking around near the bunches of flowers by the tills. I looked at the expression on his face, and the facts began to click into place.
‘Laura round your bit?’ he asked.
I nodded. ‘You faked it, didn’t you?’ I said. ‘You chickened out.’ A couple of the girls on the tills looked round in alarm. ‘All the time, I’ve been blaming the women, and it was you, making it look easy. That’s what convinced me to do it. If Laura leaves anything, I’m next in the queue.’
Malkie gave me a hesitant grin. ‘Fancy a pint later?’ he said.
I looked at him in silence, and then I chuckled a little, then I began to laugh, and once I started I couldn’t stop. I doubled up, laughing anew every time I looked at Malkie’s uncertain expression. I laughed until I had to stop because my testicles were beginning to hurt from all the shaking, and Charlotte started to look round from the sanctuary of her pushchair, wondering what was wrong with Daddy. ‘Only if you’re buying,’ I said, and turned around and pushed Charlotte out of the shop with as much dignity as a man with a pram can muster.
When I got home, Laura had gone, and Rosie told me the rest of the story. Laura had been waking up feeling sick for the last few days. She’d initially put it down to an excess of Lambrini, but then she remembered the feeling from when she was last pregnant. The previous evening, she’d given Malkie more than his normal amount of tinned lager and waited until he’d passed out. Later that night, she’d moved down the bed on her own little voyage of discovery.
‘No scars,’ Rosie said. ‘Laura couldn’t find any scars from the surgery. No trace of anything.’
Laura had listened to my description of the operation, about how annoyed I’d been that the Australian surgeon had had to do it again for the second bollock when I’d thought it was all over. She remembered the doorway outside the old Royal Infirmary. She remembered Malkie dropping his trousers and showing her a single, centrally positioned piece of sticking plaster with a bow of thin cotton protruding from each side of it. The bandage that Malkie must have stuck on earlier that day, before they’d left, knowing that Laura would take an age to find a parking space, knowing from his prior visit to the doctor that the operation was a simple ten-minute job.
And I remembered Malkie, sitting in my living room while I described the operation. I remembered him not being able to meet my eyes, looking uncomfortable and shifting about in his seat. At the time, I thought it was empathy, the shared memory of remembered pain. Now I knew better.
‘But what about…you know, after?’ I asked. ‘Wasn’t he worried she’d fall pregnant again?’
‘Do you really think Malkie McQuinn thinks that far ahead?’ Rosie replied, and I had to concede the point.
Rosie told me that Laura had chased Malkie into the bathroom with a kitchen knife that morning, threatening an impromptu performance of the surgery that Malkie had avoided. Eventually, she kicked the door in, to find the bathroom window wide open. She had run from the house, hoping to catch Malkie climbing out. Malkie, who had opened the window wide and then hidden behind the bathroom door, made his escape via the main stair, and had spent a few hours wandering about before I’d seen him in the Co-op.
‘How does Malkie know how to tie a bow?’ I asked Rosie.
‘He doesn’t. He had the op in January. Laura reckons he cut the cotton bows off a Christmas decoration and stuck them to himself.’
I looked at Rosie, and started to snigger, then giggle, then chuckle, then roar with laughter all over again.
‘It’s not funny,’ Rosie said, grinning herself. ‘Poor Laura…’ then Rosie started to laugh as well, and we fell into each other’s arms, weeping with helpless mirth until the doorbell rang.
‘Oh fuck,’ Rosie said, wiping her eyes. ‘Pull yourself together. It’s probably Laura again.’
But it was Malkie. He nodded to Rosie, grinned at me and held up a bunch of wilting chrysanthemums with a reduced-price Co-op sticker on the cellophane wrapping.
‘Oh, Malkie, that’s so sweet,’ I said, trying not to start laughing again.
‘Naw,’ Malkie said. ‘They’re fi Laura. Peace oafferin, like.’
‘Malkie, I have a feeling it’s going to take a bit more than that,’ Rosie said. ‘Coffee?’
‘Gotny Special?’ I went to the fridge and took a can of Tennents from it. Malkie opened it and drank it in one go.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked him.
‘Gaunnae ask her tae marry me.’
I gave him another can of beer and opened one for myself. It was celebration time. ‘Considering you’ll be babysitting for the next eighteen years or so, I think that’s the least you could do. I hope she’ll be suitably grateful.’
‘Aye, well. S’kind ae why ah’m here, likes,’ Malkie pointed to Rosie’s left hand. ‘Gie’s a lend ae yir engagement ring, hen.’
I went to the pub later. Malkie was sitting at the bar, sporting the beginnings of a black eye and pulling crushed flower petals from his hair.
‘I guess it didn’t work, then.’
‘Gie it a bit ae time.’ Malkie pushed a full pint over to me.
‘If you do it again, remember you’ve got two balls, and they don’t use elastoplast.’
I thought of something, and chuckled.
‘Whut’s up wi ye?’ Malkie asked.
‘That piece of elastoplast.’
‘Whit aboot it?’
‘I bet it hurt like a bastard when you pulled it off.’
Malkie winced, and squirmed on his bar stool. ‘Aye,’ he said.
‘That’s why you were standing up at the bar that night, rather than sitting on your stool. Because you’d pulled off half a dozen bollock-hairs. Yeah?’
‘Fuckin northern jessie,’ I said.