Am Bratach No. 335
May 2011

Withdrawing the subsidy
by Willie D Mackay

You never know what to expect when you withdraw the subsidy.

“You’re Alex’s boy, aren’t you?” said a voice from behind as I stood at the bar to buy a round of drinks for my Scullomie neighbours, Danny Mackay (Charlie’s father), Johnnie “Christopher” MacLeod and Howie Munro from Coldbackie. It was over thirty years since I last saw my father and, with no disrespect to his memory, he was the last person on my mind at that moment and it did not dawn that the remark was aimed at me.

I had just arrived on holiday from London where I lived and worked most of my life and was out to enjoy an evening with people I knew since I was born. Being older than me they remembered my father well. As in all country communities any variation to the norm can stimulate curiosity, and the arrival of an unfamiliar face is sufficient to attract the attention of some people in the village who over the years have exhausted the interest and patience of their colleagues leaving them out on a limb, and who therefore are anxious to acquaint themselves with new material to express their dormant disposition, and I was an obvious target.

I knew the face and the family it belonged to but had never spoken to this particular person and was instantly receptive to his presence and pleased to be greeted in such a way with the memory of my father. “Yes!” I said, and asked how he knew, to which he replied he remembered him well and that on many occasions he had had a drink with him in this very same bar. “You look exactly like him — a good looking fellow he was and he had a way with the women too — probably a bit like yourself”. I was hooked. This was fodder for an ego like mine and I enjoyed what I was hearing. Although I never considered myself a “Don Juan” or a great success with the opposite sex, I’ve had my moments and was delighted with the my new companion who, as if in response to my obvious mirth, and timed to perfection, placed both his empty beer and whisky glasses on the counter just as I reached for my wallet. He pierced my usual awareness with his kind words about Dad and I offered him, as was his expectation, a pint. “And put a wee nip in this one”, he said before I had time to terminate my generosity. “Make it family size”, I said to the barman and then rejoined my friends.

My father — 1825581 Flight Sergeant Alexander Mackay RAF — is familiar to almost everyone in the parish, only as a name on the Tongue war memorial, and to be greeted by a stranger who appeared to know him so well filled me with pride. I enjoyed my first night home among my ain folks.

The following night we returned again and the same people who were there the previous one, stood, like pieces of furniture, in the same spot I left them in the previous day. They seemed to get some comfort from their chosen stance in the bar and like homing pigeons always returned to the same place. My new friend’s face lit up when he saw me and he quickly downed the last of his pint in anticipation that I would once again experience the pleasure of giving. Having found a successful formula the previous night he saw no reason to discard it, and started to tell me that “Alex was a grand footballer too — had more skill in his feet than most of us have in our hands — centre forward — they used to call him Turn on a Tanner Mackay”. This was Roy of the Rovers stuff and I formed a vision of Dad tearing down into the valley to the half-way line and up the hill to the corner flag before weaving back down again through the red-shirted Skerray defence and cracking the ball past their goalkeeper so fast that his brain did not have time to send a signal to the rest of his body that he was meant to stop it. The pitch in Tongue in those days was a patch of common grazing shared with the sheep and had more of its fair share of undulations. The use of a flat piece of ground, a rare commodity on the north coast of Scotland, would have been considered a waste if used for leisure activity.

Howie was in great form, and decided to start the night with a “screwtop”. The summer night was warm and on unscrewing the stopper, the beer, desperate to escape, foamed and cascaded onto the floor. Before he could replace the top, half the bottle had gone. Howie was a canny chap at the best of times and to lose his beer like this could not be allowed to happen again. In his quiet, dry, humorous way he said that next time he was going to open it over a pail because it says on the bottle it’s Pale Ale.

Danny as always on a Saturday night wore a crisp white shirt and tie and, dressed in jacket, flannels and polished shoes seemed to believe that a good drinking session deserved the same respect as one would show at a funeral.

Johnnie MacLeod danced from foot to foot with his usual boundless energy, constantly reminding himself that he must lay off the barley extract and stick to pints because he had to go to the lobsters in the morning. But as the night wore on and the banter progressed his concern for his creels got lost somewhere along the way, and he resolved to leave attendance on them for a later tide. I am happy to say that Johnnie is still with us today and at over ninety is still very active.

They were wonderful characters and a night in the Ben Loyal Hotel was a grand place to be, as I hear it is again with Danny’s son Charlie now a proprietor and one of the names above the door to the licensed premises. How proud he would be if he knew that the investment he made over the bar so many years ago would eventually end up with his son. And as you can see I too am paying through the nose for my night out and hope that Charlie remembers this when next I visit.

Once more it was my turn, and true to form it was anticipated by Dad’s old acquaintance that the golden goose was about to lay again and he took up his parking stop at my elbow. By now it dawned on me that I was being “Hoovered up” and decided it was time to stop the subsidy. Before he got a chance to attack I asked which of my father’s particular activities he was going to tell me about tonight. “Is he going to be a ballet dancer or a pole vaulter”? By obstructing his approach in this way I thought he might get the nod and exercise restraint, a characteristic he was obviously not familiar with, but this did not stop him placing his glass once again in the import section. I had had enough and moved it aside and told him that from now on he was alone in the “Pay your own drinks saloon”, and was about to rejoin my friends when he turned round, and said in language liberally garnished with expletives that “your father was never any good and you are no better”.

Dad’s sense of humour was never listed in his catalogue of glowing attributes but I’m sure he would have laughed at that and bought us all a drink.


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