STRAY LEAVES FROM THE TEA BOWL
By Stephen Cashmore
The conversation box was just about empty and the melancholy reminder that we all had homes to go to was slowly stealing over us, when someone mentioned Vodka Bob. "Who?"
The younger ones had never heard of him. Alive he was the epitome of notoriety, ten years dead and he was anonymous, not even a historical footnote. A shame really, but that's life the world over. But such a name invites enquiry and those who had known this ornament of impolite society, soon found themselves outlining the life of Vodka Bob.
He came from somewhere round about the Borders. His genes carried traces of those wild tribes - the Elliots, Johnstones, Armstrongs, etc - whose blood feuds had for so long made the Debatable Land a theatre of lawlessness and social outrage, and this heritage expressed itself in Bob's general contempt for the thing's most folk hold dear in life. Marital fidelity, family ties, the quest for a steadily improving living standard, a comfortable, easy old age; Bob laughed at all this. Truly, he was a bad example to many of us.
"A helluva man! Why, I mind going through to Wick on the bus with him. He bought a 40-ouncer for the journey. He asked the wifie in the shop what she thought about the man who invented 40-ouncer's, then proceeds to tell her that the mannie must have been daft. There's too much vodka in a 40-ounce bottle for one person, but not enough for two. Now, there's logic!"
Bob arrived in Thurso in the early '60's. "Did he come to work out by?" No, he was always with the contractors. Despite his bohemian social habits he was a hard worker, and reliable, too. "Well, one morning about 5 o'clock I saw him come stotterin' out of the bakery with a bag in his hand. Next thing he's rollin' a jam dough ring down the street, laughing like a bairn, just blazin'! Three hours later Bob's at his work, sitting down to bacon and eggs, as sober as a Free Kirk minister."
He did have the occasional lapse, however. A Monday morning and no Bob. Lunchtime was here and away and no news was bad news. Was our man ill? In police custody? This uncertainty demoralised the entire workforce. On Tuesday Bob appeared, sheepish and low key, quite out of character. The site agent, an enthusiastic young engineer, fresh-schooled in an employer's responsibilities for his worker's welfare, adopted a sympathetic approach. Had Bob been ill? No. Was there some domestic matter troubling him? No. Did he have a - drink problem? Yes, he couldn't afford as much as he wanted. (A qualified 'No'). At last Bob explained his absence. "Listen, if you were my age and you'd spent the week end with a 26 year old nymphomaniac, would you be fit for your work on Monday?" The young agent thought for a moment, then wrote down: 'Reason for absence - Carnal exhaustion.'
Yes, Vodka Bob had a colourful love life. Three times married, two of them bigamously, his first wife was a German woman he had met in Hamburg at the end of the war. This had lasted all of a month. The others both belonged to Englandshire and were yesterday's news by the time he arrive in Thurso with a single suitcase in his hand. From then on he had a succession of wives - all of them belonging to other men. "How come no cheil ever gave him a bloody good hammerin'?" You may well ask. Perhaps it's because an unhandsome, overweight man is such an unlikely Romeo that no one can believe that a woman could ever be attracted to him. Hopefully some learned person can shed light on this eternal mystery.
He had an older sister, a straight-laced dame sprung from the pages of 1930's 'Girls Own'. On the two occasions this lady visited Thurso, old Bob was a character transformed; combed, groomed and ironed he looked the image of the Borders country gent he was clearly brought up to be. They ate at the best hotels, sipped G&T's in cocktail lounges and should they happen to meet one his boon companions, Bob would act the part of a benevolent philanthropist.
"I bumped into them one day. Why, I think they was just coming from the kirk. I got such a shock, what with him in a smart jacket and his hair plastered on his head and all, that my tongue froze between my teeth. 'Good morning, Sandy,' says Bob. 'And how's your dear mother keeping?' Then he gives me a pound note, and goes on his way, his sister lookin' at me just like I was an alien stranger. It wouldn't have been so bad if Bob had handed over the fiver he owed me."
Home was one room in a widow woman's house, where he lodged all his Thurso days. One Saturday afternoon, late on in his life, Bob sat on the edge of his bed slowly emptying a bottle with a young man who occupied the only chair in the tiny room. "This is a real home-from-home you've got here, Bob."
"Son, you've taken too much drink. Look around you. An old coat, a wardrobe half full of clothes the rag and bone man wouldn't touch, and those few bits of junk on the dressing table over there. And that's the sum total of a man's life."
"Yes," the young man replied, "but you've earned yourself one hell of a reputation."
It is to be hoped that these few lines will help preserve the memory of the character I've disguised as 'Vodka Bob'.
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Steven Cashmore 1999
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