It’s probably just age, but I don’t feel old. Tired, perhaps. Listless, occasionally. People keep telling me I look well, in the way you tell people of a certain age – you wouldn’t say ‘you’re looking well’ to someone of 25 unless they had been perilously ill – they’re 25, of course they look well.

Philip Roth said ‘old age isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre’, which I used to think was very funny; I’m sure there will come a time when it’s anything but funny, but for now my concerns – even as a middle-aged gay hypochondriac – are more about my mental state. Sure I don’t like the hair growing out of my ears or the way my stomach often sounds like a brass instrument played by a small child, but I can’t complain, try as I might.

But something is happening to me which manifests itself in terms of weird emotional over-reaction and I call this bonkersness.

I was in Waverley station recently. I am always early for trains and planes and late for everything else, and so I went to Costa for a coffee. The way that coffee is sold constantly bemuses me, and this was no exception. At Costa, now, they sell something called a ‘flat black’. The ‘flat white’ is commonplace as is the ‘long black’. Both of these make sense; the former involves no froth; the latter is neither an espresso nor an americano. But how, I asked myself, can a black coffee be anything but ‘flat’? Anyway it came in two sizes (a little graphic illustrated this) so I ordered a ‘small flat black’. 

This was very, very wrong of me, because it interrupted the conversation between the two employees – I was the sole customer at this point – and the young woman who took my order was not pleased, but kindly struggled on. Looking at her colleague, who was some three feet away, she shouted ‘a small flat white’. No, no, I protested, ‘a small flat black’. She looked at me despairingly, clearly believing I had changed my mind, and repeated my request in a scathing tone, one which seemed to say ‘old fucker doesn’t know which day it is’.

Things got worse. She proceeded to the till.

‘2.85,’ she said.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ I said, scanning the board, trying to find the right price among the 327 varieties of drink on offer.

‘No,’ she said, ‘2.55.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s 2.25.’

‘You ordered a small one.’

‘Yes,’ I said.

At this point the other lassie intervened, holding up two paper cups, and speaking to me in a kindly tone, as one might to a small child who, at first glance, seems willing, but none too bright.

‘It’s 2.55 for the small, and 2.25 for the mini,’ she said.

‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘you mean that the drink comes in two sizes, and the larger of the two is the small one and the smaller one isn’t called the small one?’

‘Yes,’ she said, as if I had just said that the sky was sometimes blue.

‘Well, that is completely ridiculous. GIVE ME THE MINI!’

I was an inch away from hyper-ventilating.

I get the coffee. I go to the platform. The train is there. You can’t get on. There are seats but you can’t sit on them because the other person sitting there might infect you, or you them. I put my bag down and lift the coffee, secure with its plastic lid with that convenient hole to sip through. Except the lid is cracked and the coffee runs down my cheek and on to my shirt collar then drips on to my pale blue trousers, precisely at a point which makes it looks as if I’ve pissed myself. Which, of course, I nearly do. I am at Croy before I see the funny side. Briefly. I used to think it odd that my grandparents, then my parents, got so het up about trivial things, but hey, here I am doing it too. 

This getting worked up isn’t all bad though. We went to see The Great Tapestry of Scotland and by the time I got to the last panel (it is huge, of course, and takes a good hour to get round) I was very moved by its scale, and by the wee stories of its creation appended to the panels, written by the embroiderers in their groups from Shetland to the Borders. These comments were often as much to do with being a Scot as the tapestry itself. One was by a man saying how much meaning it had brought to his wife’s creative life; another talked of waiting at the pierhead in a storm, clutching the half-completed panel, ready to send it on to the next island so someone else could ply their needle as the rain battered their window. And all this in a new building in Galashiels, some kind of light on a shabby high street. This was Scotland and here was hope and I had all the time in the world to look at it. I did feel a little out of control, and I thought about it for a while, rather more productively than I did about that mini flat black. I think I wish, back when I was a busy teacher, I had had more time to stop and look at things and think about them. Now I have time in shedloads, and to be honest, the bonkers thing is quite alright. 



  1. Sooo relatable! Bravo, sir, another triumph for the observation of human nature…and its frailties. 👏


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