It was somewhere between Downward Facing Dog and Dead Dog that Alistair MacGruber discovered his back was knackered. A torrent of unprintable profanities followed. Once he had exhausted his repertoire he shuffled over on all fours to the DVD player, now doing a very passable impression of Alive Again But Arthritic Dog.
A one inch punch ejected the disc and silenced that damn woman who was now telling MacGruber to “breathe deeply and find his inner peace”. He snapped the brand new disc in half and flung the shards at his yoga mat. To think, he’d polished off his giro on all this. He’d missed the fitba for this. “Find yourself,” the woman in the lycra and the headband had promised. All he wanted to find right now was his mobile, which, of course, had to be back over the other side of the room. All in all it was a decidedly down in the dumps Scotsman who used his last pennies of phone credit to call Doc Broon’s private number.
“Aye doc, it’s me back, shot tae pieces mon. Aye, ten thirty tomorrow will have tae do.”
This wasn’t the first time MacGruber had spent the night curled up on his living room floor, but it was the first time he’d done it sober. With nary a sheet to throw over himself, every shiver twinged his back some more and he swore until the moon turned blue. Though this ranting amused the lad next door the following morning who was buttering his sandwiches before school, it did little to lessen MacGruber’s agony - or aid his quest for inner peace.
Kitted out in the threadbare jogging bottoms and stale T-shirt that he dared not try to change, MacGruber scuttled his way to the bus stop at ten a.m. on Monday morning, and there he waited for carriage to Centre Toon. When the bus appeared ten minutes after it was due, before MacGruber could get on he was barged into the gutter by a gang of weans who evidently preferred shopping to schooling, and actions to manners. After number eight had strolled on board, MacGruber was granted admission, whereupon he saw that all the seats were now taken. One especially mean looking girl had her legs sprawled across the entire back row, but MacGruber wasn’t in any shape to displace her.
“Ah boss, have only gone and forgot me coupon. Was in me other breeks, but ye know me though, hey mon? Wee Ali MacGruber, I catch this number tae the fitba at Bee Park every Sunday.”
The bus driver, like all good bus drivers, was having none of it.
“But I don’t know that I do know ye, ye weren’t on here yesterday, and that was a Sunday. Ye look like that Hunchback of Notre Dame off the telly, and he ain’t no friend of mine.” The driver moulded his grim face into something resembling a smile. “Ach the sun is shining and I’m in a good one so show us yer mug eh, maybe I do know ye.”
MacGruber’s back, by this time, had locked into a nine o’clock position, and winding his neck up even a mere five minutes was out of the question.
The coins skittled their way onto the grubby floor of the bus, the only place MacGruber could reach from his Quasimodo pose, and he muttered oaths under his breath just loud enough that the two old ladies in the ‘Give Up These Seats for Old Ladies’ seats shook their heads like he’d just proclaimed the death of Jesus Christ himself. MacGruber ignored their stares and unfolded his copy of a three-day old paper. So far, the reinvention of Alistair MacGruber had been a total disaster - but while the yoga hadn’t quite worked out, perhaps he could get more involved with community matters, starting with this upcoming election. If he could just work out which one of these suited gentleman was the good guy…
Halfway to Centre Toon MacGruber realised one of the old ladies, the one wearing an expression like a flattened haggis, was reading along over his shoulder - or more accurately, under his armpit. Her pal had vanished and the spare seat was now occupied by a carrier bag full of tattered library books.
“I say, laddie, they’ll keep youse young’uns in gainful employ, that they will.”
MacGruber was neither employed nor young. Having no choice though, he endured Old Haggis, who was doing her best impression of a taxi driver.
“Not like them what’s in charge here now, not at all. A real fair deal for the working man that’s what they promise. I hope we can rely on your little X next Thursday?”
MacGruber hadn't the faintest which party she was referring to, but nodded along nonetheless as she rattled on about recycling bin collections and council tax bands. When she steered her monologue toward MacGruber’s current health predicament and told him he could fix his back with some brown paper and vinegar, he decided on three things: that the old biddy’s library books were filled with nursery rhymes, not Nabokov; that he’d rather stick to his paper than take political advice from a lady who read such books; and that he’d not be catching this bus again.
Several grey hairs later, MacGruber was at the doctor’s surgery, lying on a bed with his face in a pillow and thinking about the merits of such an old lady purchasing a ‘Bag for Life’.
“Think it mibbe broke, it just popped right oot mon. Havnae been able to move since.”
Doc Broon considered himself a personal friend of MacGruber’s, a very good friend indeed, what with them both drinking in the same pub and both supporting the same godawful local team. He therefore took this as a sign that his professionalism could go out the window and dissipate into the ether, along with any sympathy he might ordinarily be expected to display.
“Aye, that so is it? Hey, Scottie, dust her down, fire her up and beam me to Doc Broon’s this fair morning, was it? No I didnae think so, you can move it a little so it cannae be broken. Let’s have a wee look now.”
Doc Broon’s examination was thorough, painful, and embarrassing. Quite why he’d needed MacGruber to roll down his trousers was questionable to say the least. As he prodded and probed, ignoring the squeals emitted by his less than patient patient, he took off from where the Speaker of the Bus had finished.
“Hoping we can count on decent folk like you next Thursday, Alistair.” Prod, prod. “Looking out for us in the healthcare profession they are, that isnae a bad thing, eh? Eh, what you think?” Jab. “You’ve barely said a word since you showed up in here all a puffing out your behind and redder in the face than Mr Tamlin’s hemorrhoids that he showed me last week. Oof that was a sore sight for my old eyes.”
Trying not to picture Mr Tamlin’s condition was like trying not to think of a black cat for poor MacGruber, but it did at least take his mind off the electric charges Doc Broon was shooting up his back with those pointy little fingers. Pointy little fingers that were heading a little too low for MacGruber’s liking, who took it upon himself to declare the examination complete by slapping Doc Broon’s hand away.
“Aye, Doc. Been in a fair spot o pain ye see.”
“Hmm, well no need to be touchy about it. I can’t see what’s up, pal, but then I’m more of an ear nose and throat man. Get your kecks up and take this slip to reception to book yourself in with the chiropractor, he should be free tomorrow or the day after. And get yourself down to that polling station next week, mind you do won’t you, Alistair?”
Doc Broon winked, and MacGruber hoped that was about the election and not the examination. Trying not to meet his eye, MacGruber nodded in reply without knowing which rosette-wearer Doc Broon had been talking up. This election business was getting complicated.
Fast as he could, he inched himself along to reception. He noted on his way how, after sacking Doc Fiddlefingers, the next thing he’d do if he was in charge around here would be to replace that minging orange-faded-to-turd-brown carpet. It did at least reflect his mood, when he handed over the slip only to discover that Downes the back specialist’s next free slot was not in one, or two, but four days’ time.
Four days of sleeping in the hallway just inside the front door probably didn’t do MacGruber’s back much good, what with the breeze from the letterbox that had lost its bristles in the infamous pizza box fire. He passed his time listening to the local radio station and the dubious promises of the various candidates, but all this only left him with yet more confusion, and a headache to complement his bad back. When Friday morning arrived it was all he could do to get himself through the door and out into the street, and that coupled with his last experience of the 22A to Centre Toon meant he borrowed a phone from the lad next door, dug deep in his one good pocket, and shelled out for what they called in those parts a royal ride.
“You see, for the honest, decent working man like me or you, there’s only one party worth thinking about Thursdee, laddie. It’s nae even a question as to what they got planned specifics-wise, but more a question of ideologies, which side of the fence you butter your bread on, aye?”
The taxi driver was doing a splendid impression of a lonely old lady on a bus. MacGruber had not been miraculously hired for gainful employment whilst sprawled out on his mucky council flat floor, nor had a bottled sample from the fountain of youth popped through his letterbox, but he just nodded along and contemplated why everyone assumed a man who quite clearly cut his own thinning hair either had a job, or should be called a laddie. He also begun to hypothesise that an incredible scientific breakthrough had been achieved while he had been laid up, and now cars ran on hot air instead of petrol.
“Here we are, thas a good lad. See you doon the station Thursdee eh? And get yoursel some cod liver oil for that back o yours, you’ll have tha hinge running smooth in nae time.”
MacGruber grunted some kind of response.
“Aye, belter mon. Up the party. Cheerio the nou.”
The taxi lecturer gave MacGruber a fist-pumping salute and then he was off. Following local affairs was proving to be almost as difficult as holding a pose for ten seconds without collapsing. Thinking he couldn’t get any more bewildered by all this political nonsense and seriously beginning to wonder whether he’d ever stand up straight again, MacGruber shuffled into the chiropractor's.
It smelled of absolutely nothing inside, and that was always a bad sign, because it meant this wasn’t a place that doled out painkillers or injected drugs from footlong syringes or scrubbed its patients down with buckets full of chlorine. Any of these - preferably all - seemed very attractive to MacGruber right now. Unlike Doc Broon’s haunt, the carpet was too clean, which confirmed they were spending their allowance in all the wrong places. It was a brash eighties design of blue, yellow and pink, in unsettling geometric shapes. MacGruber’s posture may have been stuck at stage two of the evolution chart, but he was at least becoming quite the expert on the crass carpet selections of small town health care centres.
The only thing in MacGruber’s field of vision apart from the Kandinsky carpet was a coffee table. While it presented the customary array of Reader’s Digests and other glossies, it was dominated today by cheaply printed pamphlets with brash emblems, slogans and unattributed quotes promising “better deals for all”, “a fair and honest man” and “the time for change is now.” Trying to decipher what it all meant left MacGruber’s head in almost as much of a state as the slipped disc in his back. Finally, mind spinning and back aching more than ever, he was called in to see Mr Downes.
Downes was a young, square looking chap with a nervous laugh and bad specs. He had perhaps gone to the same medical school as Doc Broon, judging by the enthusiasm with which he twisted and cracked poor MacGruber’s spine. Bones ground against each other until it seemed there would be nothing left but dust, but eventually, examination over, Downes came up with a remedy to MacGruber’s suffering. And thankfully, all without even a hint of anyone removing any trousers.
“Take this DVD, yes? Very good, hehe. The council’s let us have a wee bit of cash to spend on non operative treatments and I think this could be just the thing for you to get the blood flowing, you know? You’ll be standing proud in no time at all, Mr McGluber.”
“MacGruber. What is it?”
“MacGruber, yes of course, apologies. It’s yoga my dear fellow, quite the trend. The wife’s taken to it like a fish to water, as they say, hehe.”
MacGruber seriously doubted Downes had a wife, or had ever actually spoken to a female of the human species. But who was he to pour scorn? No woman, no job, no clue about government hedge funds, and very soon, judging by the meagre reply of his pocket when he jingled it, no money. MacGruber hadn’t let the thought barge into his mind as of yet, but a bright green sign was threatening to rudely intrude there any day now and radically hasten the reinvention of Alistair MacGruber in ways unforeseen. A bright green sign that started with ‘J’ and ended in ‘obcentre’.
The chiropractor was now massaging a generous squirt of alcohol gel into his hands with a lot more care than he’d shown to MacGruber’s back. When he’d finished, he waved a leaflet in his patient’s face that looked suspiciously like those decorating the waiting room.
“I say, I do hope we can count on you next Thursday? Honest working men like you and I need a good strong hand in charge around here, sticking up for our rights and getting things done. Up the party eh? Hehe. They’re promising more money for these flash DVDs and such like, so you’ll feel the benefit yourself right away, isn’t that splendid? You’ll lose all that tension in your back and find your inner peace in no time at all, hehe.”
MacGruber took one look at the DVD case, featuring the very same lady whose wrinkleless face he’d tossed across his living room in two parts less than a week ago. His suspicions were confirmed then: money-wasters and time-wasters, the lot of them. If he’d been paying any taxes, he’d have been livid at what they were going towards. As it was, he was just plain fed up.
“I’ve just decided aboot all this votin business actually, having thought long and hard and studied all that proper-gander oot there on ye wee table, as well as listening tae the heartfelt opinions o the lads and lassies on the street.”
“Oh is that so?”
“Aye. I’m nae votin.”
And with that, MacGruber departed.
He sat on a bench around the corner for a minute, absorbing the peace and quiet like a grateful sponge. He was no closer to a cure, and was now even further from his reinvention as a twenty-first century neighbourhood watch type fellow, but his head had at least stopped ringing like a church bell. Perhaps that had something to do with escaping from all these jibbering loonies intent on filling it with nonsense about candidates and quack cures.
Instead of his head then, it was his pocket that rang next. It took MacGruber a tick to remember he had a phone in there - credit or no, he realised it could still receive calls. It’d just been a long time since that had happened.
“Aye what is it?” “Ali MacGruber? What ye daein Sundee, ye free?”
The voice on the other end sounded energetic and young, and as MacGruber only knew one man younger than himself, he guessed the culprit straight away: Dougie Hanlon, manager of Park Athletic (or as MacGruber affectionately called them, Park Unatheletic).
“Ama free? Hoots mon, lemme jes check me diary. Aye.”
“Thas grand. Me and the boys need a teenie wee favour. Now don’t ye be thinking ye need to polish yer size sevens and screw in the old screw-ins, we’re nae tha desperate. We take players here wi appetites fer more than Bessie’s hotpots, an birth certificates tha wernae wrote wi a quill.”
And none really was taken. Give MacGruber a straight talking man any day. As long as he wasn’t calling him a laddie, going on about an imaginary job or petitioning for his little X, MacGruber was all ears - and not just because he’d trimmed a little too zealously around the sides.
“Aye, we don’t need a player but we could still use ye, old boy. Reggie’s old man’s laid up with swine flu or BSE or somethin. He cannae draw the lines in, and we need someone there at nine pronto. Can ye make it?”
The buses didn’t run that early so it’d mean a forty minute walk.
“Do I need to look up?”
“Huh? Tae do the lines? Nae, just bring some white paint and get ye head doon son. Why do ye -”
“And are ye votin Thursdee?”
“Votin? What on?”
“ARE YE VOTIN?”
“Am nae even registered mon! But what’s tha got tae do wi -”
“Ah thas brand new mon. Do a good job and ye might make a proper job oot of it, paid an all, if Reggie’s old man kicks it. We’ll need an all round hand, doing the grass, the kit, the books. Jes makin contingency plans and all, ye know? Oh and Ali, the lads were askin like, where were ye last Sunday? We only wen and won three nil.”
“Don’t ask. See ye Sundee.”
Click, the phone call ended. Click, a door had opened. And CLICK, something shifted in MacGruber’s back. After the weird feeling of bones going the wrong way subsided, and the slightly less alien feeling that he was going to hurl passed, there followed a very welcome feeling indeed: things felt like they might have loosened up a little. He still couldn’t see further that a yard ahead of his little round belly, but the constant throb was now down to an occasional jab.
As he plodded on over the toon’s cobbles, MacGruber’s mind’s eye was filled instead with the luscious carpet that awaited him at the weekend, and possibly the weekend after that, and that, and that. A surface he could really appreciate, that wouldn’t make his head spin and remind him of political pish and pokey, probing fingers. A beautiful, evenly striped emerald green, with that freshly mowed grass smell thrown in free, no smallprint, zero percent APR, and all soundtracked by the cheers of hungover, middle-aged men and the thwack of leather on synthetic leather. And not a slogan in earshot. Now that was more like it.
Though he wasn’t quite capable yet (and hadn’t actually been for some years), MacGruber felt like skipping back to his gaff. He’d need to stop by one place on the way - and it wasn’t a chip shop, a post office, or Holland and Blimin Barrett. MacGuber turned the corner and strode ever quicker toward Harry’s Hardware for a nice heavy tin of white emulsion that he was by now more than capable of carrying. Who knew, maybe when he popped open the lid he’d find his inner peace floating in there? Things were certainly looking that way. As if to spell it out, the sun put his hat on and came out from behind a cloud to say ‘Hou are ye?’
Yes, things - even MacGruber himself now, as he felt another cog shift back into place and lifted his head for the first time in a week - were really looking up.
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