Document 588

The Fanatic (extract 3)

Author(s): James Robertson

Copyright holder(s): Fourth Estate Publishers: With thanks to HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. © James Robertson 2000, James Robertson

This document contains strong or offensive language


Edinburgh, April 1997

‘Hih,’ said the mirror. ‘Where d’ye think you’re aff tae? I want a word wi you.’

Carlin had tried to sneak back to bed by crawling. He was skeer-naked. He’d managed a bath eventually. His body was warm and clean again, but still aching below the flesh. All he wanted to do was strip the sheets off the bed, throw on some clean ones and get between them.

‘Come here when I’m talkin tae ye.’

‘I’m no in the mood.’

‘Oh, excuse me. So it’s awright when I’m no in the mood, when you come in bleezin frae the pub or wantin a mantelpiece tae greet on, ony oor o the nicht or day, I’ve got tae listen tae the fuckin pish comin oot o your mooth, but when you’re no in the mood I can jist fuck off and hing here, is that it?’

‘Aye. I’m seik. I need ma bed. At least let me pit on some claes.’

‘Aye, cause look at ye. Ye’re like somethin the cat decided tae leave oot. Ye’re aw sticks, man. Ye’re mair a draigelt deck-chair than a human being.’

Carlin went back out into the lobby. He opened the drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe and pulled out two sheets and a pillow-case. When he stood up he saw himself in the full-length mirror. There was no denying it: a painter could have used him as a model for a study of trees in winter. His bones poked at his skin as if it was a tent. His face was taut and his eyes were like pinheads. He brushed his prick and balls with the palm of his hand. There was about as much life down there as you’d find in a balloon three days after a party.

He wrapped one of the sheets around him. It felt cool and wonderful. He went back into the front room, chucked the second sheet and pillow-case on the bed, then went back to the mirror.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Say whit ye’ve got tae say.’

‘That was gaun tae be ma line,’ said the mirror.


‘I was gaun tae say, let’s no beat aboot the bush ony langer. Let’s get tae the root o the problem. Let’s cut tae the fuckin chase, ken whit I mean?’

‘Like whit?’

‘Like eh, how come ye’re so intae these cunts that’ve been deid three hunner year? How come ye’re hung up on psychopaths and duglowpers and miserable wee deid junkies? How come ye canna haud doun a job? Whit is it wi you? How come ye’re stuck up here in a garret wi the flu, dreamin o folk gettin tortured? Whit kinna wey is that for a grown man tae pass the time?’

Carlin stared back.

‘Awright, if ye’re no gaun tae say nuthin, I’ll gie ye a few hints. Get ye stertit. Aw I want is a full confession. Eftir that, I’ll lea ye alane. First thing is, I’ve noticed ye dinna touch folk. Ye ayewis seem tae avoid it. Whit’s that aboot then?’

‘It hurts tae touch. It’s better no tae. Safer.’

‘How’s that?’

‘Dinna ken.’

‘I’d hae thought it would be nice tae touch. Ye’d think it wouldna hurt. Jist the opposite in fact. Say, if ye touched a lassie. That’d be nice.’

‘No. Ye’d be wrang. Ye ken fine aboot that.’

‘Like that Jackie. Be nice tae touch her.’

‘I huvna even thought aboot it.’

‘Awright. Leave the lassies oot o it for the time being. How aboot yersel? Ye can touch yersel surely.’

‘How d’ye mean?’

‘Oh come on! A magazine or two, a video. Tae get ye gaun, ken. Or jist a few nice thoughts o yer ain, use yer imagination. Then a wee feel tae yersel. Ye can dae that, can ye no?’

‘Ye’re a bastart. Naethin happens, ye ken that. Look at me. Naethin happens.’

‘I am lookin at ye. It’s a sad state o affairs, Andra. Whit are ye gaun tae dae aboot it?’

‘Dinna ken.’

‘Listen, I’m no meanin tae grind ye doon. I’m tryin tae help.’

‘Aye, right.’

‘I am. Honest tae God. Come on. Step in a wee bit closer. Pit oot yer haun. Touch me if ye canna touch onybody else.’

‘Whit d’ye mean touch ye? Ye’re jist glass.’

‘Right, so it winna hurt. Come on, gie it a try. Ye can dae that. Ye ken ye want tae.’

He watched himself doing it. Very slowly he raised his hand. His forefinger came up, probed towards the finger coming towards it. It was weird to see them closing together. Their prints met, the pressure flattened the pads and he could see the skin turning yellowish as the blood was pushed back. He rested the tips of all four fingers and thumb on the mirror, looked into the shape that was there, a kind of upside down cradle of fingers.

‘Now the rest,’ said the mirror.

He felt exhausted. The fever, doubtless. He would go back to bed in a minute. He brought his face in, rested his forehead against his forehead. His eyes in the mirror were that close they looked like one eye. He stared as deep into himself as he could go.

He felt a tremble. He was breathing but he could not hear himself breathe. He wondered vaguely if he was in a dream about himself.

He stood there in the sheet, going deeper in. Like rain on a window, tears began to run down the glass.

Memories. Whit ye mind as a wean. Ye come fae nowhere. Ye gang back tae naethin. Ye had a faither that dee’d. A mither that was aye huntin things in charity shops and auction rooms. Rowp tae cowp, dust tae dust, ashes tae ashes.

She asked for him when she was deein. Whit was that, love, fear? That’s wan thing, deein. Ye dae that alane. Whoever ye are, whoever ye’ve been.

Ye niver saw yer faither tak his haun aff yer mither’s face. She niver shawed a bruise or a black eye. It was jist talkin. Ye uised tae lie there at nicht and wunner how he did it.

Ye held yer breath. If ye didna breathe oot they might no hear ye. But you could hear them. Yer ma and da. Yer ma was greetin.

Words werena supposed tae hurt ye. The only things that could hurt ye were sticks and stanes. Skinnin yer knees on gravel. Duntin yer heid aff a tree. Awthin else was in the mind.

When she wasna greetin she was doon-moothed and silent. She did the things a mither was supposed tae dae – washed yer claes, cooked yer tea, cleaned yer hoose. But that was it. She niver tellt ye stories or sang or laughed wi ye. When yer faither was oot ye could go haill days athoot a word atween yese. It wasna till eftir he was deid that ye realised this wasna normal. Up till then ye’d managed tae fool yersel that it was him bein awa that caused the silence. But when he was awa for guid, the silence was different. It held yese apairt and ye realised it was naethin tae dae wi him. And she’d be aff buyin even mair stuff frae the junk-shops and bringin it hame. Whit was it aw for, was she tryin tae full the silence? Yer faither when he was alive would see the latest lamp or vase or hideous porcelain doll and he’d look up and coont the cracks in the ceilin.

‘Whit did ye waste money on that for? Hae we no got enough vases?’

‘It was only a shillin. A bargain.’

He would shake his heid at her. If you were in the room that was aw he would dae. She’d learnt tae hae the tea ready so that ye were in the kitchen wi her when he cam in and ye were a kinna insurance policy. Sometimes he wouldna even ken she’d bocht somethin. She’d stick it awa oot o sicht afore he spottit it. She’d hae a wee hidden smile in her mooth, ye could hardly see it twitchin ahint the doon-turnt lips but it was there. Like a wean soukin sweeties in a classroom.

Later, when they thocht ye were asleep, the low talkin began. Ye had tae listen through the wa, had tae. Ye could hear his voice, yer faither that niver swure in yer presence in his life, that would aye speak his mind but only wi words ye could uise in the presence o weemun and bairns. Ye could hear his low voice at yer mither as they lay in bed. ‘Fuckin this… fuckin that… ye fuckin… ye stupid fuckin…’ Over and over. And eftir a while ye’d hear her sobs, and his voice again. ‘Stop that… jist fuckin stop that… fuckin stop.’ And she’d be tryin tae steek hersel, ye could hear the catch in her breathin, jist the wey ye were yersel when ye skint yer knees. Yer faither had forced the tears oot o her and then he forced her tae turn them aff. And ye niver kent why.

In the daytime, it was yer faither ye wantit tae be like. The auld sodger, the philosopher, the politician. No yer dour-faced mither that grat in the nicht. He was a hero wi German shrapnel in him. But ye heard thae low voices comin at ye, and ye realised that they lived a secret life that ye would niver ken, they had reached an accommodation o some kind, a wey o existin, that didna include ye and niver would.

Ye niver saw them touch in the daytime, let alane kiss. The only time ye thocht aboot them touchin was through the wa, when they were in their bed and you were in yours. They’d be in there and he’d be talkin at her like that – the sweirin talk. And ye imagined their bodies thegither and then ye didna want tae think aboot it ony mair.

Ye imagined haein a lassie o yer ain tae, but somehow ye were the odd yin oot afore onybody even realised it, even afore ye were fourteen. Ye were jist no richt. White as the mune, and as tall, ye shot up like ragweed in simmer, ye’d a neb like a flat-iron and sparse heathery hair and mannerisms that made folk look twice tae see if ye were haein them on. Ye learnt early no tae hing aboot, tae keep flittin, tae stey at the edge o things. Grannies clocked ye starin at them and shiddered. Lassies were feart frae ye. Ye would let a wasp settle in yer haun sooner than kill it, hustle it oot the windae wi a paper, but ye couldna get near a lassie.

Lassies yer ain age wouldna look at ye. Ye wantit a kiss or tae haud hauns or even a smile but ye would get naethin frae them. And aw the time yer body was talkin tae ye, tellin ye aboot yersel though ye didna richt ken whit it was sayin. Ye’d wake up in the nicht and think ye’d peed yersel. Ye’d hae a hauf-mindit dream in yer heid and glit aw ower yer belly. Ye worked oot whit was happenin tae ye but only by instinct, and by whit ye heard frae boys at the schuil. Ye were growin but it was aw inside ye, ye were like a pot-bund plant.

Later, when yer faither was deid, ye would think aboot the lassies. Then ye would feel yer prick comin up intae yer haun. Ye’d work awa at yersel wi a ragin urgency. But it was a bitter kinna feelin when ye came. Yer body exploded oot o itsel but yer mind was thinkin how the lassies didna like ye, how this was as close tae them as ye were iver gaun tae get.

So ye tried tae pit it oot o ye and got guid at the schuil and ye went tae the uni in Edinburgh, and yer ma helped oot wi the maintenance but she didna hae much tae pey, she fetched it oot the Post Office savings in twenty-pound notes. Ye steyed in the student halls for a couple o years, a teacher had recommended it, said ye’d meet mair folk that wey, but ye didna. They aw seemed tae be in pre-formed groups and nane o them wantit you as a member. That was awricht though, ye jist kept yersel tae yersel. Years later folk would mind o a few loners in the halls, they’d mind their faces but no their names. That’s how ye’d be tae them: a vague anonymous memory. It would bother them for a minute that they couldna place ye, then they’d get on wi the rest o their lives. Ye liked the idea o that.

Ye were back and forth a wee bit the first term, and in the holidays, but it wasna lang afore ye were spendin maist o the year in Edinburgh. Ye worked in shops and bars in the simmers and steyed in digs where the only person ye had tae speak tae was the landlady, and ye didna hae tae say onythin tae her if ye kept up wi the rent, it was hame frae hame. Wan year ye got a passport and went tae France and picked grapes. The money was terrible but ye liked bein in a foreign place. If ye didna want tae speak tae folk ye could make oot ye didna hae English, or French, or whitiver it was they wantit tae speak tae ye in. It was weird: ye could uise language tae avoid communicatin. Eftir a while folk jist left ye alane.

In Scotland ye’d gang back tae yer mither’s at Christmas, and phone her yince a week, but it was jist a wey for baith o yese tae ken ye werena deid. Yer final year ye had a room in a hoose in Newington. It was a huge auld villa wi a gairden, owned by a doctor and his wife. There were three rooms at the back that the faimly didna uise, so they rentit them oot tae students like yersel. It was a guid arrangement. Ye had yer ain keys, ye could come and go as ye wantit. The only rule was ye couldna hae guests steyin ower. That wasna a problem as far as ye were concerned, although anither student would sneak his girlfriend in and oot frae time tae time. It was a quiet, hidden bit o the toun. In the simmer the doctor and his wife let ye sit oot in the gairden. Ye’d take yer books oot and study for yer finals, and faw asleep in the heat wi the birds giein it laldy in the bushes.

Eftir the exams ye wunnered whit tae dae next. Ye’d a job in an office for the simmer, tedious clerical work. Ye could stey on in the hoose, save some money. Ye had guid results – ye could mebbe apply for a postgraduate coorse. Ye didna ken. Ye felt like ye’d had enough o studyin for a while.

The doctor was workin aw the time. The doctor’s wife would look at ye in a weird wey sometimes. She’d a wee passion for ye mebbe. She was twenty years aulder than ye, that was yer guess. She was friendly enough, but ye could see it in her tae: that uncertain, hauf-fleggit look, as though she didna quite believe ye were real.

‘And?’ said the mirror.

‘And whit?’

‘You tell me. Whit did ye dae wi her?’

‘The wife?’

‘Aye. That’s whit this is aboot surely.’

‘I didna dae onythin wi her.’

‘But ye wantit tae, didn’t ye? Ye fancied her. The doctor was workin aw the time. She uised tae sunbathe at the weekends. Ye’d be readin a book and watchin her. Yer prick was hard wi thinkin aboot her. Ye didna think they had a very guid marriage. He worked too hard, she was bored. She was guid-lookin tae? Am I richt?’


‘They had a son and a daughter that went tae private schuils. Ye didna see much o them. The boy was in his room playin Elvis Costello records, or he’d be oot wi his mates. The girl was fifteen. She jist seemed tae slounge aboot the hoose, bored like her ma. Am I richt?’


‘So how did ye get it thegither wi her in the end? The doctor’s wife?’

‘I didna. As ye ken.’

‘Then whit did ye dae?’

‘I’ve tellt ye, naethin happened.’

‘I’m really haein tae drag this oot o ye, amn’t I? No wi the wife then.’

‘It wasna ma fault.’

‘Dinna start that again. Tell us whit happened.’

‘She uised tae talk tae me. The wife. She was the first female that had iver done that. Mair than superficially like. We’d talk aboot everythin. Books, history, music. Feelins. But there was aye this skeerie thing aboot her when she looked at me. It uised tae bother me. How could she be that nice and still be feart? Whit was there tae be feart aboot?’

‘Well? Whit was there?’

‘I dinna ken! I’ve never fuckin kent.’

‘Go on.’

‘So we’d had this lang conversation one evenin, oot in the gairden. She was sayin I should go back and dae a Ph.D. I was sayin I wasna sure. She said it was too guid a chance tae miss. She was rich and she educated her kids privately but she was political, ken. The Tories had come intae power. She said if I didna take the chance then I might no get anither yin later. And then she looked at me and said, if I did the postgrad thing, I could stey on in the hoose, as lang as I wantit. She said she’d miss these conversations if I didna. She was starin intae me, ken. There was nae mistakin whit she was sayin.’

‘Ye thought ye were in there. Ye thought ye’d finally made it.’

‘I went tae ma bed that nicht and I lay there thinkin how it would be if the door opened and she came in. If she slipped oot o her bed, left the doctor sleepin and came alang the passage tae me. I was gaun tae hae a wank jist thinkin aboot it but I didna want tae waste masel, in case it came true. So I lay there thinkin aboot it and I fell asleep.’

‘And it came true?’

‘I woke up and there was this flesh next tae me. Squeezin intae ma bed. I’ve never felt onythin like it. A woman gettin intae yer bed in the dark, athoot a word. Somethin has crossed ower between yese earlier, a message, and this is the message bein acted upon. She didna hae a stitch on. I was still wakin up when she startit tae kiss me. I pit ma hauns up tae her. She pit her haun doon and grabbed me and I was like a fuckin rock.’

‘Then whit?’

‘I was gaun tae speak but she pit her haun ower ma mooth. She was straddlin me, lettin me intae her. But there was somethin no richt. Aboot the haun ower ma mooth. The fingers werena richt.’

‘It was dark.’

‘But no that dark. I came awake. I pushed back her hair. It wasna the wife. It was the daughter. The fuckin lassie. I was inside her. I was aboot tae fuckin come in her. I pushed her aff. I felt masel collapse as I did it. I got her haun aff me, I says, "Whit the fuck are ye daein?" She didna speak. She lowped aff the bed and ran for the door. I got on ma feet but she was awa. I stood there shakin. I had this big pain in ma baws. Like there was this big knot aw tangled up. I felt I was gaun tae puke.’

‘And did ye?’

‘No then. I went back tae ma bed and lay there. Didna sleep aw nicht. I was thinkin aboot the doctor’s wife and if I should say onythin. But I kent I couldna. I couldna say a word.’

‘But somebody did. Somebody tellt somebody.’

‘The next evenin, it was a Monday, the doctor was hame early. He was niver hame early. I had been oot at work. I was fucked, puggelt. I came in and he was staunin in the hall. He says, come in here. He had a kinna study. He uised tae work at hame tae. He was a big shot in the Infirmary.’

‘Ye kent ye were for it.’

‘I was in a dwam. He looks straight at me and says, you know I could press charges. I says, whit? He says, my wife has asked me not to. On condition that you leave. At once. I asked him whit he was talkin aboot. He says, oh I think we understand each other. My wife says you’ve been ogling her. That was the word he uised, ogling. She feels very uncomfortable around you. I felt masel gettin angry, I says, that’s no ma problem. He says, that in itself I might forgive, though I can’t condone it. My wife is a very attractive woman. Then he stops and gets even mair serious-lookin. He says, it’s the other thing I can’t overlook. My daughter is impressionable. She is also under the age of consent. I cannot have her at risk. When she told my wife that you had come to her room and tried to seduce her, my wife of course insisted that I speak to you, and that you must agree to leave this house. If you do, that’s as far as this matter will go.

‘I couldna believe whit I was hearin. I was that shocked I wasna even angry. I was staunin in front o him like a wean, and him daein this fuckin heidmaister routine, and I was aboot tae come oot and say, haud on, pal, ye’ve been misinformed, it’s yer wife that’s been giein me the eye, and as for the lassie, it was her that got intae ma bed – but I stopped and thought aboot it for a second and I realised I didna hae a chance.’

‘Whit did ye dae? Ye didna let him get aff wi it?’

‘There was naethin for him tae get aff wi. The idea that the doctor’s womenfolk were queuin up for us was jist laughable. And this guy was power, ken? He could crush me like a slater. I couldna win. I couldna stey in that hoose whitiver happened, no eftir whit had been said aboot me. The only thing I could dae was no admit it. I turned aroon and left the room. Didna say a word tae him. There was a bathroom at the back o the hoose for us students. I went in there and that’s when I puked. Then I went back tae ma ain room. I packed aw the stuff I had intae a suitcase and a few bags. I pit a note on the stuff I couldna cairry – a box o books, a few auld claes – sayin TO BE COLLECTED. I picked up the suitcase and the rest o ma gear – there wasna much – and I walked oot the hoose.’

‘Ye found a room for the nicht?’

‘Doon by Haymarket. I wantit tae get far away frae that place. The Festival hadna startit so it wasna impossible tae find somewhere. I booked intae this guest-hoose and I went oot for a drink.’

‘Ye sat and had a few pints. Whit were ye thinkin?’

‘First of aw I was thinkin, ye shouldna hae left. I was mair angry at masel than I was at the doctor and his faimly. But that passed. Then I began tae wunner if I’d been dreamin. Or if I was mad or somethin. Mebbe the daughter hadna come intae me at aw. Mebbe I’d fantasised it in ma sleep. Or no even in ma sleep – jist made it up and convinced masel. Cause why would she hae? I’d hardly spoken tae her. I’d got the wrang end o the stick as far as the wife was concerned so how no wi her tae? Then I thought, mebbe ma memory’s re-writing stuff for me. Mebbe I’m seik. Mebbe I really did try tae get intae her room but I dinna mind it like that, I’m shiftin the guilt affae masel and ontae her.’

‘Ye didna really believe that?’

‘I didna ken whit tae believe. There was nae evidence either wey.’

‘And then?’

‘Then I calmed doon a bit. I didna need tae stey. I could get oot right then and there. The next mornin I sortit oot a few claes. I went back doon tae Princes Street and bought masel a rucksack, and took aw the money I had oot the bank. I came back tae the guest-hoose and packed the rucksack. Then I walked doon tae the bus-stop, got a bus oot tae the motorway and startit hitchin.’

‘Ye went tae France.’

‘France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland. I went intae Eastern Europe years before the Communists were turfed oot. I jist flitted aboot, pickin up a bit o work here and there. Usually I worked for a pittance and a roof ower ma heid. That was fine. I niver spent much so I saved a fair bit in thae years. And I’d send ma mither a postcaird once in a while, tae let her ken I wasna deid.’

‘But ye came back.’

‘Aye. How could I stey awa for iver, jist because o somethin that might or might no hae happened? I came back. I got the job in the bookshop. I was quite surprised tae get it, but it was a new shop, they wantit folk wi a degree. And I moved in here.’

‘How fuckin convenient. So but whit happened tae yer healthy attitude? Yer ditch the baggage, go tae Europe attitude? How come ye’ve regressed?’

‘I niver ditched the baggage. I thought I had but I was still cairryin it wi me. Ye canna ditch it.’

‘Bury it.’

‘Ditch it, bury it, whitiver. Ye canna. No stuff like that. It’s aye there.’

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Information about Document 588

The Fanatic (extract 3)


Text audience

Adults (18+)
General public
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 1999
Word count 4519

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher Fourth Estate
Publication year 2000
Place of publication London
ISBN/ISSN 1-84115-189-0
Edition First
Part of larger text
Contained in The Fanatic, by James Robertson - Extract
Page numbers 220-230

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 105
Forenames James
Surname Robertson
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1950
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Writer
Place of birth Sevenoaks
Region of birth Kent
Country of birth England
Place of residence Newtyle
Region of residence W Angus
Residence CSD dialect area Ags
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Sales Director
Father's place of birth London
Father's country of birth England
Mother's occupation Primary Teacher
Mother's place of birth Leatherhead
Mother's region of birth Surrey
Mother's country of birth England


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes General use, work and home
French Yes Yes No Yes Occasional use, work and leisure (holidays)
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No Yes No No Academic, creative
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes General use, work and home