I lined up outside the Grecko Hall for a night of boozing and schmoosing with some of Dumfries’s most influential shoemakers. Since March I had been working under the influential sole man Alan Galt and was keen to get ahead in the business with a few kind words or suggestions planted at choice moments into the ears of well-to-do gentlemen. Making shoes was to me nothing but a stepping stone to fame and prestige and fast bucks, strange as that sounds, and the malaise of living with three older brothers with their girlfriends and opinions, their opinions on their girlfriends, and their girlfriends’ opinions, left me keen to hit the dust and get my own pad somewhere in town.
I brought Michelle with me. She was the fourth person I had asked on the train to be my guest, seduced by the offer of free food and a warm room for the next three hours. She looked like someone used to scraping the last mouldy bean from a tin or leaning against water tanks to absorb the heat, her eyes saggy with poverty. I suggested we walk in arm-in-arm but she wasn’t keen on this idea (I persuaded her to wash her face in the station bathroom and comb her hair a little) so we went in side-by-side, our hips colliding when the crowds squeezeboxed us closer.
I met most women on trains and had a series of short relationships for the duration of each trip. The long-term relationships I had were on business trips from Dumfries to London (Neve, Anna, Name Withheld), our conversations sustained with each stop, each delay or each shot on the desert trolley. I considered these far more worthwhile than conventional relationships. You learn a great deal about a person in one chat. The important stuff can be packed into those few hours—lifetimes are mere padding. The short-term relationships were on brief trips between work and home: most of these with girls I knew from the area who found me unpalatable as a potential suitor.
Having stepped off the train with Michelle, I began to feel an unwanted attachment to her. She’d told me she had to get home to her husband and her kids. Her husband was an alcoholic and her kids were drug addicts and she was getting her life sorted out but she needed time and money and she didn’t have enough time or money, there’s never enough time or money to sort things out, is there? I understood, or pretended to—I was a little preoccupied—but I’d never disembarked with a woman before and I started to notice things like her wide green eyes and stately big nose, or how her legs swished like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, left right, left right, etc . . .
The Grecko Hall was built in 1944. A month later the Germans blew off the back wall and the structure wasn’t repaired until 1998, where a more modern design was chosen to compliment the baroque style of the original. The venue was oddly bipolar: a literal bridge between the past and present. Phil Collins had been booked to play that evening while the shoemakers networked and drank and gave speeches. I was looking to trap Viola Nagle (the most powerful shoemaker in Europe with a chain of four hundred shoe shops and factories to her name) in a corner and tell her about my potential as an up-and-coming shoemaker. Her loafers were crafted with love and care by Burmese peasants in sweatshops, approved by both Amnesty International and Buddha, and I had a particular knack for designing snug and innovative loafers for the teen market.
I gave the usher our tickets. Michelle felt a little light-headed from the three beers she’d drunk on the train. When she saw the class of people I mingled with she put her greasy hair in a bob and checked her breath. I suggested she really ought to nip across the street and buy herself a frock, have a wash in the disabled shower then reconvene later. She agreed, seeing the chance she had to impress these horribly rich people.
I lined up behind the one hundred others wanting to get at Viola. Clearly, if each person got five minutes airtime, I wasn’t going to get at her this evening. A plan was needed to get ahead in the queue. I saw Phil Collins by the deserted buffet, pocketing a salmon sandwich and coughing on the sausage rolls. He looked older in real life than in his uplifting pop videos about walking into lights and Jesus knowing he’s right, but that had been two decades ago now, and his face showed the weariness of the seasoned pop troubadour reduced to corporate appearances and cheesy eighties reunions.
I caught him by the buffet filling his plate with chicken drumsticks. He seemed to favour the drumstick over the other savouries on offer, psychically drawn to these gristly hanks of revolting breast over the pilau rice or brackets of salty prawn.
“Helping yourself?” I asked. Opening gambits. Make or break conversations. Phil got defensive.
“Yeah, so what? I like chicken and the chicken’s free so why not fill up?”
“Yes, well. Why not? I quite like the look of these saran-wrapped cheese sculptures. Hey, there’s one in the shape of a loafer. Do you think they’d mind if I broke the wrapping?”
“Do what you like, mate. Just leave some chicken for me, would you?” he asked. Irony wasn’t present in his voice.
“Ha. Right. Hey, do you want to meet Viola?”
“Viola Nagle. She’s the most important person in this room. Apart from yourself, of course.”
“Who cares? I don’t even know where I am. All is know is there’s a free chicken, one thou in the bank, and I can mime if I want,” he said.
“You mime at live concerts?”
“Look mate, people don’t want to hear dodgy versions of the songs they love. They wanna hear the original, the song in their head. They can’t tell we’re miming if we play loudly enough.”
“I never knew that, Phil. Can I call you Phil?”
“That’s the name. How much chicken do you want?”
“Umm, that’s OK. I’m not hungry. Look, would you like to me to introduce you to Viola? She’s the woman with the queue sticking out her behind. She’d love to meet you, she’s a great admirer of your early work, especially the stuff with, um . . . I Can’t Dance, was it? Your band?”
“Right. Sorry, I don’t get to listen to much music these days.”
“Couldn’t give a monkeys, mate. Got to get back to the soundcheck,” Phil said, wiggling his well-oiled toosh as he humphed his Everest of chicken toward a sleeping roadie.
I found myself back in the queue with no hope of meeting Viola that evening when Michelle returned. She had purchased a chiffon sweater made from elk fur and an electric blue sari decorated with the constellation of Orion. The blue star system of Rigel reached from her lower calf to the red super-giant of Betelgeuse around the horizon of her hips.
“What d’you think?” she asked.
“Very starry,” I said.
“Could you give me money for this? I spent about £200.”
“Would you like to meet Phil Collins?”
“Lead singer of Genesis.”
I thought I could use Michelle as a bargaining chip. She looked incredible when she made an effort, a fact I had noticed from her shampooed hair and pleasant musk, and her new Big Bang sari might appeal to someone clearly interested in astronomy. She swished over to the stage where Phil sat eating his chicken and telling a rude joke to his roadie.
“Phil?” I called out. He raised a drumstick to shush me.
“ . . . then I said to her, I’ve never mistook a dildo for a courgette, love!”
“Phil?” I tried again.
His roadie was howling at this crude innuendo and Phil was about to toss a drumstick at me when he caught sight of Michelle, standing primly perplexed in her galactic legwear.
“Who’s this?” he asked. He put his bucket down. A good sign.
“Michelle,” she said. “I’m from around the area and this guy asked me to come here. Thought it would keep me warm for a few hours.”
“Is that right? I’m Phil Collins. From Genesis,” he said, reaching over the stage and pulling Michelle nearer with his handshake.
“I’ve never heard you. We pawned the stereo last week. Danny said he needed the money to buy acid and lager. He said material things didn’t matter when you had acid and lager.”
“Is that right! Sounds like a right laugh, this Danny. Would you like to come back stage and meet the band?”
I hopped up with Michelle. Phil held a drumstick at me, meaning back off. I needed Phil.
“Phil, it’s a two-for-one deal. I’m with her,” I said.
“Oh fine. Just keep it shut.”
I went back stage to meet his backing band. Genesis weren’t in evidence, but there was a drummer in a bunnet, a guitarist drinking a Pepsi and hooting like mad at The Good Life, and a man with a goatee who barely moved or blinked or breathed. He played bass.
“Michelle, meet the chaps,” Phil said. Michelle shook the hands of the men shyly, remarking on the cool bunnet and the cool goatee and the cool Pepsi and her flattery won them over. She sat beside the guitarist who held her in a groupie-clinch (as one might hold a beer) and told her how hard it was being on the road and playing two strings at once. Viola was waiting.
“Chaps, this is the geezer who brought Michelle to us. Thank you geezer, and see you later.”
“No, look, Phil: I need you to introduce me to Viola out there. Now, fair’s fair, I gave you Michelle, you give me Viola.”
“Oh for heaven’s . . . OK. Fine, let’s get this over with,” Phil said. He stomped out the room, munching his fourth drumstick while hopping off the stage towards the queue of eager shoemakers. He tossed a drumstick at an oily smirker currently greasing Viola’s pole.
“Hey Suit, back off. I want to meet Viola,” Phil said.
“There’s a queue,” he said.
“I’m Phil Collins. You can stick your queue.”
“Oh, you’re Phil Collins?” Viola asked. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve been a fan of your music for many years.”
“Great. Listen. Sorry to bother you here, but my pal wants to talk to you. He’s an aspiring man with a great future. If you could give him a few minutes that would be great,” he said.
Viola, seduced by the nasal charms of Phil’s pseudo-Cockney accent, gave him his (my) wish. I stood before the drumstick victim and one hundred envious losers and pitched to Viola. I told her the ideas I had for the future of comfortable and affordable loafers for the teen market. About the heel strap to prevent accidental slippage. The scented soles to combat odour. The in-built toe massagers for long summer walks. She nodded and took notes and smiled and looked as though she was listening.
“Can you get me Phil’s phone number?” she asked.
“Phil? Oh, um . . . sure. What about my ideas?”
“Tell you what, you get me Phil’s number, then we’ll see about your ideas. OK?”
“We’ll see what?”
“About them. We’ll see. OK?”
“Well, all right.”
“Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure listening to you. When you get his number slip it in this back pocket here, please.”
“Thank you. Next!”
Returning backstage to pick up Michelle, I had the misfortune to witness Phil Collins in his blue briefs, licking his fingers and singing ‘Sussido,’ before leaping onto Michelle and sucking on her neck like a vampire after an especially gruelling Lent. I stepped out the room and left them to it, thinking Phil a better suitor for Michelle than me, with his fondness for chicken and his four billion dollars and his blue briefs.