Monday, 20 September 2010

Embarrassing Confessions

As a result of several close encounters with the medical profession, I am proud to announce that I am now a man it's impossible to embarrass.
Almost impossible, anyway. There are one or two situations where even I still cringe, such as the moment in the supermarket when you stand there with your trolley piled high with goodies, only to be told that your card won't cover it. They never make it easy on you, do they? They ring for the attention of a key-holding harridan and project waves of frost at you while you wait. It doesn't matter how much you apologise, they never say, "Ah well, these things happen." You just get a stare, past your shoulder and off into the middle distance, as if they're fighting the urge to lunge at you with a rubber glove and a jar of industrial-strength mustard before the supervisor can come between you and break it up. And when Mrs Authority does arrive, it's amazing how much sub-text she can put into the simple act of turning a key on the till. "I was saving this key for a special occasion: it was going to be a surprise for my 90-year-old mother as a way of saying thank you for seeing me through some particularly difficult times. And now I'm having to waste it on you, you of all people. Trash."
But for me, the most embarrassing time I can remember was when I was at a trade union conference in Aberdeen. I'd never been to Scotland before, and I was there as interpreter for a small group of German conference guests.
We'd done the serious business for the day, and the Scottish trade unions had laid on some hospitality for the evening. It started with a reception, where we all stood around sipping sherry and eating canapes - you know, those little pieces of bread with a slight trace of exotic stuff on top, like open sandwiches for Oompah-Loompahs. You try to make one of them last for three or four bites, despite the fact that you're bloody starving and could easily see off a couple of dozen of them, just to help the sherry go down. The idea is that you nibble them daintily whilst mingling and making small talk with the very people you've just spent the entire day talking to.
It was not easy interpreting at this event, because people had run out of things to say to each other hours previously, and now they were asking me to translate things that no resident of Planet Earth wanted to hear at all, just to keep the conversation going. And being in Scotland added a whole extra stratum of difficulty, because the locals were not very good at making language concessions for foreigners.
"Ja, tell me now, vot iss diss veekurit timrus beastie zey keep talking off?" I was asked. Either that or somebody would collar me in passing and say, "Ah'm tryin' teh explain teh oor pal here, what's German for See You Jimmie?"
In a situation like this, I think you'll agree that copious amounts of single or double malt anaesthetic are called for, and I was comfortably up to my ankles in the sea of oblivion when there was a sudden hush in the room. Then it started.
From the next room, a lone piper sounded one mournful note that went on for no more than a second or two before another note was added to it, then a third, really high and eldritch, floating on top. And suddenly a dozen more pipers joined in to make the bass drone fill the air, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I felt immersed in a kind of eerie magic, and when the pipers in full Highland dress slow-marched into the room and gently broke into "Amazing Grace"... well, I was hooked. It was just plain bloody glorious, and if you think the bagpipes are nothing more than a device for giving your enemies the willies on a dark and foggy hillside, all I can say is that you had to be there. I'm filling up right now, just thinking about it. Choked up doesn't cover it. So I got drunk.
And then we had something to eat and I sobered up a bit, and then the dance music started.
I'm a sucker for country-dance music. I can't sit still and listen to it. At the very least, I have to tap my foot, and once that starts, it's only a matter of time before I'm jigging around, a slave to the beat. I don't actually know any dances, but I do have a pretty good sense of rhythm and, once my thirst has overcome my inhibitions, lots of energy. Some might say, too much. My children for instance. My eldest daughter once described my dancing as "like a frog trying to get out of a hot bucket".
The band took a break, so we all filled up our glasses, then emptied them, then filled them again... and we kept on doing that until an announcement came over the PA, something to the effect of "Sninny wada hootnoot bolla granshit noo!" and people clapped. Then the band started up again, with one of my favourite pieces of Scottish diddly-diddly music, and I got up to dance.
It seemed as if most of the other people were rather tired by this time, because there were only a few of us dancing. As I've said, I don't know any proper dances, but the people around me were really good. They were forming fours and twirling around and coming together in two rows and taking it in turns to dance down the middle and link hands over the top... and I looked around and saw that the rest of the people were just sitting there!
And I thought, 'How can you do that? What's wrong with you lot all of a sudden?" And I went up to one of the tables where a friend of mine was sitting, and I tried to get her up onto her feet, but she wouldn't budge.
So I thought, 'Screw you, then,' and went back to dancing, only now I was giving it the full Travolta, because I was going to enjoy myself, even if all those other miserable a*holes were too shy to let their hair down. And all of a sudden, one of the women who were doing it really well said something to me as she danced by.
And I said, "Pardon?" but she was already gone, in among the other dancers. So I chased after her to find out what she'd said, except that of course I chased after her in the spirit of the dance, in time with the music. And every time I got near her, somebody would grab her and whirl her away, so I had to chase her right up the other end of the line, calling "Hey, I didn't hear you... what did you say to me just then?" And finally I got right up next to her and she hissed at me, "Sit down, you pillock! This is an exhibition dance!"
And everybody else in the room - even those who didn't speak any English - had realised this, except for me.
The interpreter.
The one who was supposed to be a pro at knowing what was going on.
And my table was twenty miles away, right at the other end of the room, and I made my way back to it through a sea of faces that refused to look me in the eye. And when I got back to my seat, I stayed there for the rest of the evening, drinking.
And the next morning, I told everybody that the last thing I remembered from the previous evening was that magic moment when the pipers broke into "Amazing Grace".
That was my story and I stuck to it. Until now.