Stirred, not forsaken

8th July 2005 at 01:00
I know what I did last summer. For me, holidays are marked by major family excursions and DIY projects. Last year it was Sirmione and the downstairs toilet (respectively). I liked Sirmione because it was quiet, scenic and cultured. I liked the downstairs bathroom because we weren't buying curtains for it, so I didn't have to go to Texstyle World.

There's something about buying fabric that disengages me. I will happily help choose paint, paper and carpets, but put me in front of swatches of material and I stand uneasily, shifting my weight from foot to foot, ready to agree with anything in order to get back to the car.

There were no DIY projects to occupy me during the summer of 1981. I had just finished third year at university and three of us had moved into a flat in Edinburgh's Tollcross. It was cheap and somewhat basic. One of my flatmates was a computer scientist. The other was a medic who liked Max Boyce. Sometimes he would play us his Max Boyce records, delivering punchlines to the gags scant seconds before Max himself. There was only so much of this that I could take, but I did not want to fall out with my wannabe doctor pal.

To cope, I would go back to my own room, stick a cushion up my jumper and sing, "A wee Welsh twit with a high, high, voice Who's always laughing at his own jokes," to a tune vaguely resembling that of "Sospan Bach". It may seem unfair that I abused Max Boyce rather than my friend, but Max Boyce never let me watch The Professionals on his black and white TV.

I had passed my driving test the previous year and foolishly bought a Mini van that I could not afford to maintain properly. There was nowhere to park it outside the flat, so I sold it and bought a zoom lens for the Pentax camera my parents gave me for my 21st. Transport was provided by a five-speed touring bicycle - more a Hovis advert with derailleur gears than anything else. My non-medic pal and I kept our bikes in our bedrooms unless the Student Accommodation Service wanted to inspect the flat.

By the summer of 1981, I had discovered just how much alcohol it took to disable my mouth's automatic braking system and had limited myself accordingly. Two pints seemed safe enough, though this level did have the effect of making me think that all Eric Bogle's songs were as good as Waltzing Matilda. It took four flagons of McGrundie's Old Disgusting and a couple of tracks from Now I'm Easy to relax one of my best mates enough for him to tell me that he was gay, but not to worry because he didn't fancy me. I was insufficiently beyond adolescence not to feel relieved but too vain not to ask, "Oh aye, whit's wrong wi' me, then?"

I got a job as a nanny. Sort of. There was a wee boy with learning difficulties who had undergone an unpleasant spinal operation and was recuperating in the Astley Ainslie hospital. I was paid to take him on trips in the family's brand new Mini Metro. He was a stoical, appealing chap who was prone to the occasional tantrum when he would batter the back of my hand with his knuckles.

Little did I know that keeping my cool when I felt like unloading a mouthful of invective on someone half my size would prove to be good training for the future. The boy went home to North Berwick for the weekend. Sometimes I cycled down on the Hovis advert to join him.

The family lent me an Austin Maxi to shift some stuff into the flat. This car was the colour of a slice of processed cheese and had the first five-speed gearbox I'd ever encountered.

"Was 1981 a summer of love?" I hear you ask. My gay friend was not alone in not fancying me. No one else did, either. I probably had pangs for two or three different females in the period from July to September. I'll say no more as I don't want to embarrass anyone, especially not myself.

Taking the Baden-Powell route of strenuous exercise to quell unrequited stirrings, I went on a cycling trip. Edinburgh to Carluke. Carluke to Killin. Killin to Glencoe (eating sardines standing up in the rain).

Glencoe to Culloden: the massacre trail. I should have stopped at Inverness but was too mean to pay the municipal campsite fee. Then Culloden to Aviemore, avoiding the main roads.

My legs liquified on the hills. Train back to Edinburgh. I drank Guinness on this trip because I didn't like it much, so I could make a pint last. By Aviemore, I had succeeded in gaining a taste for the stuff but had overdosed on Mars bars.

Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married. There were riots down south.

Back in Glen Street, Tollcross, nothing much happened to me, and yet the summer of 1981 is somehow one of the most vivid of my life.

I know what I did that summer.

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