For disclaimer see part one.
The start of January was a very busy time. Sorting Isobel out had been a priority; she had needed a more permanent place to stay until the flat over the bar was ready. Happily that problem was immediately solved by Toni who declared that Isobel could come and live with her until we all moved into the new flat together. I had spoken to Toni about this afterwards, thanking her. We would have both loved for me to move into her flat instead, but I felt that leaving Isobel at Susie’s would not have been fair on either her or Isobel. I was the person she rented the flat to, not my sister. I know Susie would have agreed, but it wouldn’t have been right. Isobel seemed more than happy with Toni’s offer.
I had discussed with Susie, in the week between Christmas and New Year, the issue of me leaving the flat to go and live with Toni. She had said she couldn’t be happier for me. I had felt genuine regret that I would be leaving her flat so soon. I had really enjoyed sharing with her. I apologised to her for leaving her in a bit of a spot, but she said not to worry, she would find someone else if she needed to.
With Isobel’s accommodation problems solved, the next step was finding a General Practitioner who would take her on as a patient and, of course, the issue of her schooling also needed to be resolved. I took her along to my Doctor’s surgery in Portobello and fortunately they were in a position to take on new patients. At her appointment two days later she was given a pregnancy test, which confirmed that she was indeed pregnant. Isobel had said there was no doubt about it in her mind as she had skipped two periods, but had the test come back negative, I don’t know whether I would have laughed or attempted to strangle her.
It turned out that the baby was due on the nineteenth of June, which I found a little ironic since that just happened to be father’s day. Everyone got a little excited upon hearing the due date; it seemed to make the prospect of a new baby all the more real. Until now we had been completely focussed on the problems caused by the pregnancy, now for the first time we were thinking about the end result, a new life. Isobel was over three months pregnant and she would soon be showing.
The next priority was to sort out her continued education. Toni took Isobel to see one of her old teachers from high school; they had kept in touch, seeing each other frequently in and around Portobello. Toni explained that Helen would be the best person to seek advice from. It turns out that the way forward for Isobel was simply to study at home for her exams. Helen explained that joining a new school with her pregnancy about to show would do her more harm than good. The students would be unforgiving and merciless. Helen arranged for Isobel to get all the books and coursework she would need, that only left the issue of where she would sit her exams. Apparently there was a place set-aside specifically for that purpose, where people who were not affiliated to any school or college could apply to the Scottish board of education and pay a small fee to sit their exams. This seemed like the ideal solution, as the room would be full of older students, usually adults looking to go back to college or university. Isobel seemed happy with this outcome, the only stumbling block would be her pregnancy and the hope that she delivered the baby after her exams were finished, if not, well we would cross that bridge when and if we had to.
Isobel made the decision not to apply for university that year. I wondered what the future would hold for her? Having a baby was going to change a lot for her. Would she still go to university? I really didn’t know and I don’t think Isobel knew either. She no longer had the freedom to do what she wanted; her choices would now all be taken with the baby in mind. Would she still follow through on her career choice? She had been undecided about what she wanted to study when I last asked her. I decided not to enquire, it just didn’t seem right, since it may no longer have been possible.
Toni put an idea forward to me that I hadn’t considered before. She asked if I wanted to learn to drive. I didn’t hesitate to answer ‘yes’. I went to the local post office that very afternoon to pick up a form that would enable me to apply for a provisional driving licence. I couldn’t wait for it to arrive so I could get started with my lessons.
With Isobel sorted for her exams and set up with a new Doctor, I put my mind to the upcoming term at university. I would be back at lectures and tutorials within a week and I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into the new subject matter. We would be studying the Highland Clearances. A very tragic and brutal period in Scotland’s history, when tens of thousands of men, women and children were forcibly and often violently removed from their homes to make way for sheep. The clearances ultimately led to the destruction of the clan system and almost the loss of my beloved Gaelic, Fuadaich nan Gàidheal, the expulsion of the Gael, that’s what the highlanders called the clearances. Many were forced to emigrate to places such as Nova Scotia and the Carolinas. They were poor people who arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. I could scarcely imagine a more unjust way to treat your fellow countrymen. Perhaps the upcoming course work would help me understand more about that most dark period in Scottish history.
Toni had a lot to organise. She had put her flat on the market at a fixed price. I asked her if she wouldn’t get more money if she waited for offers, but she told me that she just didn’t have the time to wait for that process. A fixed price listing would guarantee her a quick sale and money in the bank for refurbishing the new bar. She was getting the keys to the new place at the beginning of February and hoped to have the upstairs flat ready for us to move into by the end of that month. She was going to be very busy once she got the keys, there seemed to be a lot of luck and timing involved in these events. I hoped everything went smoothly. There was a lot of hard work ahead for Toni, as she planned to do as much of the manual labour as she could manage herself. I had told her that Isobel and I would help out whenever we could. We weren’t particularly skilled, but could hold a paintbrush if need be, and clean. It didn’t matter to us, we vowed to assist Toni in any way we could.
Valentines Day happened to fall on a Sunday that year, which was very fortunate as I had Sunday nights off. Susie and Eddie were away for a romantic weekend and wouldn’t be back till the Monday, so I had decided to invite Toni to the flat for our own romantic evening. I had been to the local shops the day before to purchase all the fresh ingredients I would need for a new recipe I wanted to try; I then made a stop in at the local video shop to rent a copy of Educating Rita; Susie had recommended it, saying it was a very good film.
I had the table set for two, complete with a crisp linen tablecloth, folded napkins, lit candles and a small floral arrangement for the centre. The meal was almost ready, I just had to remove the baked potatoes from the oven, strain the vegetables and serve the chicken breasts with the wholegrain mustard sauce. I think the food had turned out well. All I needed now was Toni; for once she was actually a little late
The buzzer rang ten minutes later and I let Toni in. She entered the flat cursing the bus for not being on time.
“Bloody buses! Thank God I rarely have to use them, I don’t know how you can stand using public transport everyday.”
She pecked me on the cheek as she handed me her jacket, along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a card.
“Happy Valentine’s, Shona.”
I thanked her as I returned the greeting, accepting the flowers then going in search of a vase to put them in.
“Something smells heavenly and I’m starving.”
“Good, because it’s all ready. Take a seat, while I put these flowers in water then I’ll serve dinner.”
“Why didn’t you drive over?” I asked from the kitchen area.
There was no immediate answer as I picked up the dish full of vegetables and put it on to the table. I looked at Toni in expectation.
“Ahh, the Nova has developed a wee problem. It’s being towed to the garage tomorrow morning.”
I frowned; we had just been in the car that afternoon, Toni giving me my second lesson. Then I recalled the way the gears had crunched as I tried to find reverse while simultaneously pressing down on the clutch pedal. Oh no, this wasn’t good.
“It’s my fault.” I declared, not asking. I knew I had contributed to the problem with my inept attempts at driving.
Toni got up from the table and stood before me, gently grasping my waist.
“No it’s not, Shona. I drive that little car to bits. I’m not surprised it’s developed a problem.”
“Really?” I asked more in hope than genuine belief.
“Really.” Toni assured me. “And don’t think you are going to be stopping our Sunday afternoon driving lesson, I enjoy teaching you.”
Toni knew me too well, I was about to suggest that we stop it and I book driving lessons with the local instructor instead. For the last two Sunday afternoons Toni had driven us to an empty school car park and started to teach me the basics. The plan being that, come the summer, I would have more free time and could book ten lessons and then sit my test. I’m glad one of us was confident, but Toni said most people fail first time and if I happened to be one of them, it would be good experience. She was the driver so I was going along with her plan. When I asked if she passed first time she said she would tell me after I passed. She could be very sparing with information when she wanted to be, I still hadn’t found out what she had studied at college and all Eddie would say when I asked him was that he had been giving me lots of hints, so he was no further help.
We sat down to eat and Toni made encouraging noises about my latest dish, I was quietly pleased, as I really enjoyed trying out new recipes, but there had been the occasional hiccup. There was a pasta dish with blue cheese that hadn’t quite gone to plan, but Toni had eaten it anyway, I just couldn’t. We had some white wine with the main course and for afters I had prepared a fruit salad, I wanted to keep it light as I planned to enjoy a box of chocolates with Toni while we watched the film.
After dinner I got the video ready and we settled onto the sofa to watch it.
“What film did you get?”
Toni sounded so deflated, I wondered if she had already seen it and not enjoyed the film.
“You don’t like it?”
“No, it’s not that…I’m just a little disappointed.”
“Have you heard bad things about it? Susie saw it in the cinema and said it was a good movie, she thought you might enjoy it.”
I was beginning to worry that my planned evening was quickly falling apart.
“I’m sure I will enjoy it, it’s just that I was hoping for something a little more…you know.”
Toni raised her eyebrows up and down and I frowned as I tried to work out what she meant. I was beginning to lose a little patience.
“No, I don’t know, perhaps you could be a little more explicit?”
“Now you’re talking!”
“Toni, what on earth are you saying?” I had lost patience now; my frustration was clearly showing through.
“Well I was hoping for something more raunchy, say like oh I dunno, maybe Deep Throat or Debbie Does Dallas.”
My face coloured so quickly I could feel my ears burning red hot. Toni burst out laughing, not able to keep a straight face any longer. She was referring to an incident a few weeks back when Isobel was spending a few days here before she moved to Toni’s flat. We had been bored one afternoon and there was nothing much to do with almost everywhere being closed for the holidays. There were a couple of videos in a carrier bag next to the television and I didn’t think that Susie would mind if we watched them. I put one on and within minutes both myself and Isobel sat wide eyed staring at the screen before I had the presence of mind to scramble over to the video player and turn it off. It took me three goes before I hit the right button. Isobel then started to howl with laughter. I rewound the video and removed it from the machine with shaky hands before returning it to the bag it came from. I found out later when I talked to Susie about it that the videos belonged to Eddie. She said he should have been more careful and not left them lying around. She didn’t seem to mind that he had them and I later wondered just exactly why they were in the flat in the first place, then I decided not to dwell on that thought too long.
I still hadn’t said a word to Toni and she was beginning to look a little concerned with my silence.
“I’m sorry, Shona, I shouldn’t have teased. I just couldn’t resist.”
“Who told you?”
Toni refused to give up the name of the culprit, but I had my suspicions. I knew Eddie and Toni were very close, but I just didn’t think he would tell her that, he always treated me with respect; he could be a real gentleman when he wanted to be, which left one person.
“Isobel.” I stated.
Toni didn’t deny it and I had my answer. I was already plotting my revenge as we settled down to watch the film. I loved my sister dearly, but she could be a real brat. Between her telling Toni lots of embarrassing things about me, and her constant borrowing of my clothes, sometimes I could see her far enough!
We both really enjoyed the film, Susie had been right about it, it was very good, but as usual any mention of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, really irked me.
“Lady Macbeth gets such a raw deal because of Shakespeare,” I remarked idly.
“Gruach, her real name, was far from the conniving woman driven by demons that is portrayed by Shakespeare. She was a woman most likely driven by self-survival after the death of her husband, Gillacomgain at the hands of Macbeth. This was an act of revenge by Macbeth as Gillacomgain and his cousin Malcolm, killed Macbeth’s father, an act that left Gillacomgain as heir to the title. When Macbeth defeated and killed Gillacomgain, he regained his own inheritance, but also made Gruach a widow in the process. She and Gillacomgain had a son who remained heir and was also therefore a threat to Macbeth. When Macbeth proposed to Gruach, he removed the threat posed by her son Luach, while, at the same time, offering Gruach safety for her and Luach. By all accounts she remained at Macbeth’s side till his death seventeen years later, the length of time he remained on the throne, which means he was a very successful King, and she a devoted wife. History says she was a kind and compassionate lady, nothing like the one Shakespeare portrays.”
“So why did he portray her that way?”
“For his own gain most likely. The way the characters were written was sure to curry favour with King James. The play seems to celebrate his ancestors. James was the first Scottish king to also rule England, as James I; he was James VI, of Scotland. It’s also known that James was interested in the study of witchcraft, so Shakespeare’s play hit all the right notes with the new king. It was a very clever work of fiction.”
“And in the process, changed our perception of a Scottish king and queen.”
“It happens a lot. In history, separating the fact from the fiction can be a very difficult process, but one I enjoy immensely.”
“I can tell.” Toni smiled and pulled me towards her for a kiss.
“Life just never seems to stop for us, does it?” I was lying in Toni’s lap, looking up at her as she soothingly ran her fingers through my hair. She had been working really hard getting our new flat ready. Isobel and myself had been helping but Toni was the one in there every day.
“It’s certainly been non stop since the start of January, and it’s not going to let up for a good while yet.”
“I know, but all the hard work will be worth it when you get the bar up and running.”
“I hope so.” Toni paused in thought, “Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew. If the bar fails, we have nothing. I’ll be ruined financially and we won’t even have a roof over our heads.”
It was almost strange to hear Toni talk this way. She was by nature a very positive person. This was a rare glimpse into another side of her character. I suppose we all had doubts, but Toni had never voiced hers before. Then again, she had never committed herself to such a large project before. Her home and business all wrapped up in the one financial deal. I could see where the concern was coming from.
“Toni, I know you are going to make a success of the bar. I have absolutely no doubt.”
“Thanks for having faith in me, it means a lot.”
“You were born to do this kind of thing.”
She laughed. “Just like you were born to do history.”
“Something like that.” I playfully sank my teeth into her thigh; the denim making sure it wouldn’t hurt.
“Behave,” she reprimanded. “You know, when the bar is running smoothly and making enough money, the first thing I want to do is take you on holiday.”
My head immediately jerked up at that thought. “Really?” I was excited at the prospect having never been on holiday.
“Yes, it’s been ages since I had a proper holiday – what about you?”
“Ah, I’ve never actually been anywhere on holiday.”
Toni moved me into a sitting position and gave me a serious look. “Well that’s something we will have to change. Is there anywhere you would really like to go, anything you would really like to see?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Paris.”
Toni nodded her approval. “Do you want to travel by boat or plane?”
I smiled. “I’ve always wanted to fly.”
“Then that’s what we will do, fly to Paris for a romantic holiday.”
I gave Toni a kiss. “Thank you.”
“You’re most welcome.”
She settled her longer body down to lie alongside mine, so we were both stretched out, as always her feet dangling off the edge of the settee.
“That could be a long way off you know, is there anything you want to do closer to home? Somewhere you want to go?”
There was somewhere I wanted to go, the thought had been running round in my head ever since Christmas.
“Well, there is somewhere,” I said a little hesitantly.
“Go on,” Toni encouraged.
“I’ve been thinking about the joke you made on Christmas evening, about Portobello not being ready for a gay bar.”
“I’ve never been to one.”
Toni pursed her lips as she took in that information.
“So, you would like me to take you to a gay bar?”
I nodded slowly, and then said more definitely, “Yes – yes, I would.”
“Okay…it won’t be like any bar you have ever been to before.” She cautioned.
I nodded, “Okay.”
“And we will most likely bump into women I have, er, dated.”
“How likely?” I scowled.
“I would say, definitely.”
I considered that for a moment. “That’s fine, I can live with that.” I hoped.
Toni wasn’t convinced and honestly, I didn’t blame her after my previous displays of jealousy.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I replied firmly.
“Then it’s a date. I’ll take you to the best gay bar in Edinburgh, on one condition…”
“You don’t walk around looking shocked.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Wait and see,” she replied cryptically.
As I lay beside her the thought kept running around in my head, what could be so shocking about a gay bar?”
At the end of February the three of us moved into the flat above the bar. Toni had worked so hard to get it ready, because she wanted the move to coincide with the date she was leaving her flat in Musselburgh. That was on a Monday so she had two days to empty out her flat. Isobel and myself were easy to move, we really only had our clothes and books to worry about. Toni had furniture, so she had hired a van to move it all.
With the help of some strong guys, the move was finished by Saturday evening. I was working, so I wasn’t around to witness some of the chaos trying to get beds and sofas up the staircase that led from the bar to the upstairs flat. When I got home from The Fern that night, Toni and Isobel were sound asleep. They had obviously been very busy, as all that seemed to be left was the unpacking of boxes. All the furniture was in place. The flat was looking lovely with its fresh coat of paint and new kitchen and bathroom installed. A lot of the appliances were so old they had to be replaced. The skip that had stood outside for the past month, collecting the rubbish from the flat as Toni worked on it, had been removed and would be brought back empty for her to start filling it again with the rubbish from the bar this time. We may have got the actual move over with, but now the really hard work began, downstairs. Toni estimated three months. Working on a budget she had to do as much of the work herself as she could. Tradesmen would only be employed if and when it was completely necessary. Other than that it was Toni and any friend she could rope into doing the odd job for her.
As the weeks went by, the bar actually started to look worse. We were living above a building site. Toni would be there from eight in the morning, often till I dragged her upstairs to bed at night. The only quality time we were spending together was in bed, and Toni was usually fast asleep the minute her head hit the pillow.
I talked her into having a day off for Isobel’s eighteenth birthday. Isobel was six months pregnant, and looking every bit of it. It was so strange to see her that way, it often made me smile at the wonder of it all. Obviously alcohol was out of the question for Isobel, so we decided to go for a meal at the local Italian restaurant. There was me and Toni, Eddie and Susie. I had gone shopping with Isobel earlier in the week to help find her a new outfit, it wasn’t easy, but she looked cute in her dungarees and top. It was practical and comfortable and that was getting to be the most that Isobel could hope for as the baby continued to grow inside her.
“Happy Birthday, Isobel.” Everyone chorused.
I handed her the gift that was from all of us. Isobel opened the card that contained £100 worth of vouchers for Mothercare, a large department store that stocked everything you could ever need for mother and baby. Isobel was overwhelmed. The truth is she had no money, and would never have been able to afford anything new for the baby, but Toni and I had spoken about this many times and between us, we would make sure she had everything she and the baby would require.
“Thanks, everyone,” she said with tears in her eyes.
Toni and I had got her some personal items too, and a parcel had arrived from my Gran that morning full of baby things. From hand knitted cardigans to bibs and shawls. Isobel and the baby were going to be fine.
In the following weeks items began to appear, first there was a cot, then a pram. Isobel’s room was starting to look like a nursery, and we really appreciated everything that was being donated to us. There were items from Susie’s friends at work and even people we had never met before were being extremely generous and it warmed my heart. We made sure to send our thanks to everyone helping us. Toni knew a lot of people and, luckily Cath had held on to a lot of the items she had bought when her children were babies. She had been very generous.
The bar was finally beginning to take shape. Toni still said she would have it ready for the end of June that was two months away; I was finally beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Both Isobel and myself were studying hard for our respective exams and Toni continued to work all the hours God sent in the bar. Eddie was there a lot too, he couldn’t wait to get out of the Railwaymen’s Club as things had gone from bad to worse, with profits way down and money disappearing left and right. The current committee was running the place into the ground. I felt sad for the people who really enjoyed socialising there. I said as much to Toni but she had little sympathy, instead muttering something about a bulldozer and building flats.
I couldn’t believe Isobel had gotten so big. She was due in four weeks and was looking very pregnant. I was amazed, looking at her sitting in the armchair watching television with her hands resting on her large bump. The poor thing had swollen ankles, so I had put her feet up on a footstool and given them a rub. She was constantly in pain or discomfort from one body part or another, having great difficulty finding a comfortable position to sit in or sleep in.
I looked up at Isobel, slightly panicked.
“What? What is it?”
She giggled, as she rubbed her tummy. “Relax, Shona, it was just a sharp kick.”
I moved up to her stomach and laid my hand near the area she had rubbed. Isobel moved my hand to the exact spot. Then I felt it, another kick. We had done this many times now, but it never ceased to amaze me. There was a little life inside my sister and it wouldn’t be long now until we got to meet them in person.
I kissed the area that the baby was kicking and spoke a few words in Gaelic.
“You’re going to be a terrific Auntie, Shona.”
“And you are going to be a fantastic mother,” I reassured.
I knew it was a source of great anxiety for Isobel. The prospect of having a new life to look after, but I had no doubt that she was more than capable.
We both looked up suddenly as we heard the sounds of a scuffle outside. Something about it just made my blood run cold and I ran to the window overlooking the bar door. There below to my absolute horror were Toni and Eddie being beaten by four men. I screamed and ran for the stairs.
“Call the police, Isobel!”
In a blind panic I ran to the side bar door, I could hear the dull blows as they connected with another body. I would always remember that sound and every time it left me feeling sick. I threw open the door, to see Toni on her knees and Eddie lying on the ground.
I immediately threw my body over Eddie to protect him from further hurt.
“Leave them. Please leave them alone,” I begged their attackers.
I heard Toni say my name, it sounded raspy, she was clearly in a lot of pain, but Eddie wasn’t even moving.
“Come on boys, our work here is done.”
I watched in horror as the one who had spoken walked towards Toni and lifted her head up by the hair.
“Message received?” he asked menacingly.
I could see her in the streetlight, blood pouring from a cut below her eye, she looked so proud and undefeated. I couldn’t believe it when I heard her defiant reply, like some bloodied Highland warrior.
I let out a scream, as he was about to strike her beautiful face again. A blow, which, much to my relief, never landed, as his accomplices started shouting that the police were arriving. I looked behind me and could see them running on foot out of the police station, which was only five hundred yards away.
The men quickly ran off and I was left for a few seconds with nothing but silence, I couldn’t move. When the police arrived they stopped and gently coaxed me to stand up from my protective position over Eddie’s limp body. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. I was in a daze.
The police cars sped past in chase of the attackers, sirens blaring. The ones who were on foot were administering first aid to Toni and checking Eddie for a pulse. I just stood against the wall, frozen.
I became aware of a woman screaming, it was Susie. Izzie must have telephoned her. She was trying to get to Eddie, but a policeman was holding her back, trying to calm her down, assuring her that he was breathing and the ambulance was on its way. I could hear Toni answering questions being put to her. ‘No’ she didn’t recognise her attackers. She told the police they had west coast accents, probably Glaswegian.
“Shona! Oh my God, what happened?”
Susie was at my side, crying, she was shaking like a leaf.
I just looked at her, struggling to find my voice. She shook me.
“I…I don’t know. I was upstairs with Isobel when we heard a commotion. I looked out of the window and saw four men beating Eddie and Toni. I ran down, Susie. I got here as fast as I could…” I was crying now, the numbness of my initial shock beginning to subside.
“I tried to protect him, but it was already too late.”
“Shhh, I know, I know.”
We could hear the ambulance sirens getting closer; thank goodness they were almost here. Susie and I watched as the paramedics assessed Eddie before putting him onto a stretcher and then into the ambulance. Toni got in with him, reluctant to be treated, but she needed to be seen regardless of what she thought.
Susie attempted to get into the ambulance with them, but was informed there was no space for her. I took her by the hand and led her away. A policewoman intercepted me.
“We need to ask you a few questions.” I recognised her from The Fern. I had forgotten her name, but I knew she and Toni had dated.
“We want to get going to the hospital.”
“I know,” she said, not unkindly. “Just a few minutes of your time, then you can go.”
I answered her questions as best as I could, but there really wasn’t much I could tell her. I was able to give a good description of the man who pulled Toni up by the hair, other than that I couldn’t help any further.
“How are we going to get to the hospital?” Susie asked.
“I have a spare set of keys for the Nova, I’ll drive us.”
“Shona, you haven’t passed your driving test yet.”
“I think I can get us to the hospital.”
Susie took the keys from me with a shake of her head. “You will have yourself a driving ban before you even pass. Come on, get in.”
I was amazed that Susie was even able to drive, given the fright she had just had, but the need to get to the hospital and see Eddie seemed to galvanise her.
Susie was a good driver, and got us there safely, which was probably a lot more than I would have done. We parked and immediately headed to the Accident and Emergency department, which was where we found Toni, sitting waiting to be treated.
“Hi.” I said tentatively. I winced when Toni turned her head to look at me. Her beautiful face was a mess. There was the gash I had seen earlier, that was definitely going to need stitches. Her eye was swollen and her nose looked like it may have been broken. I didn’t even want to think about what lay hidden beneath her clothing.
“Hi.” She looked despondent.
“How’s Eddie?” This was from Susie; she must have been worried sick.
“I don’t know yet. When we arrived, they took him straight through. I haven’t heard anything since.”
Susie left us to go in search of information, leaving Toni and I sitting in silence; I honestly didn’t know what to say to her. I decided instead that I would call Isobel, as she would be very concerned.
It was almost an hour before Toni was treated. In that time she had gingerly made her way to the public telephone to call Eddie’s parents. He was conscious, thank goodness. He had been treated for his superficial injuries and was now under observation because of a concussion. There was a lot of bruising on his body including his ribs, but nothing was broken.
Toni had been x-rayed and stitched. She did have a broken nose and a sprained wrist, along with a lot of bruising and some superficial cuts. All in all, I thought they were both very lucky to escape with just the injuries they had.
Toni, Susie and myself left the hospital some three hours later. The journey home was very quiet; we were all tired and shaken up from the events of that evening. When Toni and I got back to the flat, we found Isobel sound asleep in her armchair; she had obviously tried to stay up to await our return.
I gave her a gentle shake. “Isobel.”
“Oh, you’re home. Thank goodness. How is everyone?”
“Eddie has been kept in hospital. He has a concussion so they want to keep him under observation. He also has bruised ribs, but nothing is broken and he will heal in time.”
“What about Toni?”
My girlfriend had gone straight to the bathroom, so was nowhere in sight.
“She’s home. A few cuts and bruises. A broken nose and a sprained wrist.”
“It’s terrible that someone would attack them.”
I heard the bathroom door open, but Toni headed straight for our bedroom.
“I know. Come on; let’s get you to bed. It’s been a long night.”
I awoke the next morning to find Toni’s side of the bed empty. I assumed she had gone to the bathroom but after ten minutes, there was still no sign of her. It was a little after eight in the morning and I had already decided the night before that I was going to skip university for the first time ever to look after Toni for that day. Ever more curious and concerned where she had got to; I got up and went in search of her.
Not finding her anywhere in the flat, I ventured downstairs and there she was, varnishing wood and listening to INXS’ Kick, just as if it were any other morning. But this wasn’t any other morning and I could see the pain from her injuries etched across her battered face.
“What on earth are you doing?”
She turned to look at me. “I’m getting the bar ready.” She went back to varnishing the piece of wood she was working on.
“You’re hurt, Toni. You should be resting, letting yourself heal.”
“No, I need to be right here, showing whoever was responsible for last night that I won’t be intimidated.”
“You need to be upstairs letting me take care of you!” I was mad at her.
She continued to do her varnishing. It seemed she was serious about carrying on as normal. Obviously she had a point to prove, but I certainly did not agree with it. I left her and headed back upstairs, as the strains of Never Tear Us Apart rang out in my ears.
I spent the next two nights at Susie’s. Isobel knew where to find me if she needed me. I was too angry with Toni to be around her. I worked as usual in The Fern on the Friday and Saturday night. A lot of the regulars were enquiring after Toni and Eddie’s health. I was able to tell them they were both doing well. Eddie had been released from hospital on the Friday afternoon, with strict instructions to get lots of rest and take it easy for a while. Obviously that same advice from the hospital fell on deaf ears when it came to my stubborn, pig-headed girlfriend.
I was still angry on Sunday. I knew she was still working away on the renovations as I had heard her praised often enough in The Fern over the weekend. People were full of admiration for her stand of defiance and her ability to get right back in there, even when she was bloodied and had been beaten up. I failed to agree with them. I just saw the woman I loved in pain. She needed to rest and take care of herself.
Sunday afternoon I was still at Susie’s. She had gone to visit Eddie, which left me alone in the flat. I heard the buzzer and absentmindedly permitted the person entrance. People were always forgetting their keys or needing access during the day. I was surprised when I heard a knock at the front door. I looked through the spy hole and saw Toni standing on the other side.
I opened the door and stared at her. She looked a little better than when I had last seen her, on Friday morning, but the bruising was awful and her nose was still looking strange. It needed to be straightened, as it had shifted to the left, and she was due to have it reset the following Tuesday.
“Can I come in?”
I nodded and opened the door wider to allow her entrance.
I followed her into the living room, where we both took a seat, Toni on one sofa and me on the other, it spoke volumes about the current state of our relationship.
“How are you?” I asked. I did genuinely care.
“I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse.” She attempted a smile, but it turned into a wince, it must have hurt.
“You’ve certainly looked better.” My answer allowed some of my anger to show through, I couldn’t keep it at bay.
“Shona, I know you’re angry with me right now, but I want you to come home, please?”
“Toni, you and your best friend were badly beaten up by a gang of thugs. Then the very next morning when you should have been resting, you were back down in the bar working.”
“I know, but I needed to show that I wouldn’t be put off.”
“And what if they come back? What about next time? Isobel is going to be giving birth in a month!”
“I’ll protect us, I promise you – we will all be fine.”
“You don’t know that! You can’t make that promise. This time you and Eddie are going to be okay, what about next time?”
“There won’t be a next time.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because it’s being taken care of.”
I stared at her, wondering exactly what that meant. Were we about to become involved in some sort of violent turf war? I didn’t like this one bit.
“Does this involve more violence, is someone else going to find their husband or boyfriend or lover on the pavement battered and bloody?”
“There is more than one way to skin a cat.” Toni replied cryptically.
“What exactly does that mean? I’m fed up being on the outside, Toni, You need to tell me exactly what we are involved in!” I was so angry with her.
“Okay, I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll tell you everything.”
I sat back and listened as Toni explained that the police were tipped off as to who was behind the hiring of the henchmen. It would be difficult to press charges, but as Toni had said, there was more than one way to skin a cat. Every bar needed a licence to operate and his was just about to be revoked. Without it, he couldn’t sell alcohol so there would be no point in even opening his bar.
“Did you know – I mean when you bought the bar, that this might happen?”
“It was always a possibility that someone wouldn’t be happy.”
“So it could happen again?”
“It’s highly unlikely now, especially when this publican loses his licence, it will send a message to anyone else who has any thoughts about getting heavy.”
“I just can’t believe that people would have you beaten for wanting to start a business.”
“I’m competition, Shona – they were trying to scare me off.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand the violence.”
“I know you don’t,” she said compassionately.
Toni moved closer to me and I welcomed it.
“I’m asking you not to give up on me, not now, please. We have come so far.”
She was right, we had come very far, and she was now only weeks away from finally achieving her dream. I couldn’t give up on her now but, in the future, I was going to make sure that Toni kept me fully informed of any risks.
“So what do we do?”
“We pick ourselves up and keep going.” She hesitated, “So will you come home?”
And, with that, Toni helped me pack up the few belongings I had hastily thrown into an overnight bag when I’d left and we walked back, hand in hand to the Illicit Still.
I sat tapping my biro pen silently against my cheek as I read over my final written exam. I was in the Playfair library hall. It was a stunning piece of architecture, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. I had stood in awe the first time I laid eyes on it. I checked my watch, there were eleven minutes left. I continued to look over my paper; I would never leave an exam early, every moment was precious.
Time was called and we were instructed to set down our writing tools and pass our papers to the front. I knew I had prepared well for all my exams, but I always felt nervous beforehand, now I felt mentally drained. They were over for another year, unless I had any re-sits; no more studying until late September.
I stood up from my seat and gathered my pens, putting them into my bag. I was anxious to get home to Isobel, the poor thing was four days past her due date and she was absolutely miserable. Everything was a challenge for her, whether it was getting up from a chair, or out of the bath, she needed help with most things.
I walked to the exit, everyone leaving at the same time had created a queue to get out of the doors, I may have been in a hurry, but I didn’t intend to push my way through like some had. It never ceased to amaze me how rude people could be. As I stepped through the doors into the darkened corridor, I felt a tug on my arm and the next thing I knew I was facing Toni. I immediately panicked, only one thing would get her away from the bar to wait outside an examination room for me and that was Isobel going into labour.
“Yes, she’s in labour. I dropped her off at the Maternity ward, and headed over here. That was about twenty minutes ago.”
I started to make my way out of the building onto South Bridge. We were only a five-minute walk from the hospital, but I immediately set off at a run with Toni easily catching me. The Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was a big place, but fortunately, Toni knew exactly where the maternity wards were located. I had to get to Isobel; I couldn’t leave her to go through any of this on her own.
When we got to the labour ward, Isobel looked completely relieved to see us, then a powerful contraction hit just as we got over to her bed. I watched as my sister went through the pain. There was a baby monitor strapped to her middle and she was wired up to a machine, which was monitoring the baby’s vital signs, the heartbeat was constant and rapid. I assumed this was a good thing; otherwise surely the staff would be doing something?
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here, Shona.” The contraction over, Isobel finally spoke.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be here till you have that baby.” I reassured her.
Worried that the baby could arrive at any minute; it had been days since we had last left Isobel on her own and I was grateful that Toni was always around when I’d had to be somewhere else.
“So what happened?”
“My waters broke.” Isobel answered me. Rather impatiently, I thought, but she was about to have a baby and I suppose it was a daft question.
Toni filled in the gaps.
“I was downstairs in the bar when I heard Isobel call me. As soon as she said her waters had broken, I got her downstairs and into the car.”
“No need for thanks.”
Another contraction hit and I felt nothing but sympathy for my little sister.
“Is there anything you need, Isobel?”
She relaxed back onto the bed before answering. “I’m fine.”
Time seemed to pass so slowly as we waited there by her hospital bed. A nurse would stop by periodically and check Isobel, then tell her it would be a little while yet, whatever that meant. I found it difficult to sit and wait while my sister went through this, and the worst was yet to come.
After a while, there was a flurry of activity. Isobel had expressed a strong desire to push. I immediately contacted a nurse who examined her again, and this time the reaction was completely different. Whereas before they would examine her internally and then reassure her, this time it was all systems go, my sister really was ready to deliver!
We were moved en masse to the delivery room, I stayed with Isobel the entire time. She was absolutely terrified, I could see the panicked look in her eyes, but despite this she remained brave and strong, doing as the doctors and nurses encouraged. I think the gas and air was helping a lot, I shut out the cuss words after the first couple. I could forgive the ones aimed at me given the circumstances. I continued to hold her hand and encourage her, it wasn’t easy to watch my younger sister in pain, but I kept thinking that this was the most natural thing in the world; women were made to do this, it would all be fine. And eventually it was.
Isobel delivered a healthy baby boy. He weighed in at seven pounds and three ounces and had all the required fingers and toes. The sight of her new son transformed my sister. I expected exhaustion but instead she was euphoric. I was too; I was so proud of Isobel and so happy.
Isobel was a mother! I was an auntie! I had a nephew! Oh no, my legs felt wobbly…
Isobel stayed in hospital for five days. I went to see her every day and by the end of it she was desperate to get home. The time in hospital had been good for her as she had been instructed by the nursing staff on the best ways to handle and care for ‘Jack’, that was the name she had settled on. Breast-feeding was becoming less and less awkward for her and I could see her confidence, when it came to handling little Jack, increase on a daily basis. I think I was more nervous about them coming home than Isobel was. Toni was very practical about the entire thing, which was probably just as well, since I hadn’t given a thought as to what Isobel would need back at the flat. Toni, on the other hand, had been talking to Cath, and she had lots of suggestions, which was a great help, since neither Isobel, myself nor Toni had any real experience when it came to new-born babies and motherhood; we were all learning as we went along.
Thank goodness our exams were over as the late nights were very tiring. Isobel initially handled all of Jack’s feeds, but I talked her into expressing her breast milk so that I could help out; knowing that, otherwise, my poor sister was going to be constantly exhausted.
Jack was our little miracle. Sometimes I would just look at Isobel when she held him and I was in complete awe. There was no feeling like it; I could only imagine how Isobel herself felt. If it were even a fraction more than the feelings I had then she was very lucky indeed. I would look at her face as she gazed at the little bundle and I saw nothing but love and devotion there. I couldn’t help but think about motherhood and myself. Had I given away the right to have a baby? Would it be acceptable? I couldn’t have a child with Toni, at least not one that would carry her genes along with mine. I felt a certain sadness at that, however that was life. There were alternatives and perhaps sometime in the future I would explore them. For now I was more than happy to share in my sister’s happiness. She really was going to be a terrific mother.
We had a lot of visitors that first week, all popping in to see the new baby. Isobel was overwhelmed with the continued generosity of the people around us. They brought cards and gifts for the baby. The little outfits for Jack were especially cute.
Some of the Railwaymen’s Club members that we bumped into around Portobello also popped in to see the new mum and baby and Toni’s dad Keith had come along with Mary, who he was still dating. She really was a lovely woman, and was having a very positive influence on Keith. His drinking habits were improving. He no longer felt the need to indulge in the binge drinking sessions he had taken to on his days off. I knew Toni was pleased with this new development, but she didn’t say too much. I suppose it must be strange seeing your father with another woman, but as Toni herself had said, life goes on.
With less than a week to go, Toni was hard at work with the final preparations for Saturday’s opening night. The name of the bar was finally up outside, and it was thrilling to see ‘Illicit Still’ in gold lettering on the freshly painted burgundy exterior, it looked very elegant. Toni had dropped flyers all around town advertising the opening night and the free drinks promotion that she had organised as an added attraction to bring in the customers. She had also had a large banner made for the outside of the bar advertising the same thing. The entertainment that night would be a covers band that had played the Railwaymen’s Club, not long after I started working there. I remembered that the lead singer had flirted with Toni; it had really irked me even though, at the time, we weren’t yet involved. I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t get jealous if it happened again and would remember what Toni had told me at the time, ‘its just business’.
I looked around the fully refurbished bar on Thursday evening when Toni declared that the finishing touches had all been applied, and she had received the appropriate documents from the local council board of inspection and the fire department. She was ready to open; I had suspected though, that she would continue to check over everything right up until she opened the doors for business.
Toni had worked so hard to get to this stage. Essentially, with the bar being on a corner it was ‘L’ shaped inside. The flooring comprising a deep, ruby red carpet that gave way to a beech wooden floor near the stage at the far end of the pub. This meant people would have a place to dance when there was live entertainment. The bar itself was very long, with a generous amount of working space behind it. A long, polished piece of oak wood ran along the bar top for a good thirty feet before it curved at one end. It was beautiful to look at, and I really liked the combination of matching oak chairs and tables. The walls were covered with cream paint and adorned with pictures of Portobello from the turn of the century. I loved seeing the trams and there was one of the old pier. Near the stage, on the wall, was my absolute favourite item, a jukebox that played compact discs! I didn’t yet own a compact disc player, but I hoped to sometime.
Toni had come back from the bank that morning laden with lots of coins to create a float for the bar, keeping the excess in the safe for whenever the tills ran low. She found Isobel and myself downstairs with Jack, feeding fifty pence coins into the jukebox to play all the latest songs. After laughing at our shenanigans she told us not to waste our money and then showed me how to get the jukebox to play for free, stating it was a perk of sleeping with the owner. Isobel laughed at the look on my face, then I laughed along with them, they were incorrigible at times.
It was great to see both Isobel and Toni in good spirits, one having just given birth and the other having just endured months of very hard work that included a severe beating along the way. I actually thought Toni had lost some weight and intended to feed her up a little; she could do with gaining a few pounds. She and Eddie had both made a full recovery, the only remnants of the attack being the one-inch scar below Toni’s left eye and the slightest of bumps on what was before, a straight nose.
Toni made some selections, then grabbed me by the hands and danced around with me to Belinda Carlisle’s – ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ much to the delight of Isobel, who clapped along to the beat.
When opening night arrived, Toni was nervous. I had never seen her display any real anxiety before, but there was no doubting its presence. She kept checking and re-checking the bar, everything from the stock to the money in the tills. Then, after she did that, she would go and check the toilets for the umpteenth time to make sure all the cubicles had toilet paper.
When I could stand it no longer, I finally marched her upstairs for something to eat; I knew she wouldn’t get a bite after the bar opened for business.
Cath and Eddie arrived early, but in all honesty, there was nothing for them to do, Toni had been so thorough, right down to organising the cold buffet that would be available throughout the evening. We all stood in the bar having little to do but twiddle our thumbs until the doors opened at 6pm. Eddie kept things lively with his jokes, often at Cath’s expense, but she never seemed to mind and took his constant teasing in good spirits.
With less than fifteen minutes to go I could feel the excitement building amongst the four of us, I had really been looking forward to us all working together again. Toni hadn’t employed a glass washer instead she had installed a new state of the art machine that would do most of the job for us. All you had to do was stack it with dirty glasses, press a button, wait a few minutes, then open the door and pop the now clean glasses back onto the appropriate shelves. Toni had said it would pay for itself in the long run.
Finally the doors opened and we all stood behind the bar and waited…
Well, it wasn’t like a queue was ever going to form outside for the opening of a pub, but an hour later business really started to pick up and two hours later the bar was full, with standing room only.
“I have a night free on Thursday.”
I was shocked Toni was saying this. I couldn’t recall the last time I heard those words. The bar had been open for almost three weeks and she had yet to take a night off.
“Do you have any plans?”
“Well I seem to recall you making a request some time ago, one I haven’t been able to fulfil…till now.”
I was intrigued, but I had no idea what she was referring to.
“You asked me to take you to a gay bar.”
Now I remembered, it had been so long ago I had forgotten.
I nodded, “I remember.”
“So, you still want to go?”
“It’s a date, be ready at nine.”
“Nine? Isn’t that a bit late?”
“No, that’s early.”
I was so excited I called Susie and she dragged me into town shopping.
“You haven’t been out with Toni in so long, we need to get her going.”
“But she is going, she asked me.”
Susie rolled her eyes. “I mean get her going, as in can’t keep her hands off you. You are going to be in a bar, where almost every other woman is a lesbian. You’re going to look knockout!”
Oh, dear god, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. What if Toni liked the look of someone else, What if someone liked the look of her? I could see where Susie was coming from; I was going to have to look totally knockout.
We shopped till we dropped, according to Susie, and by the end of the afternoon, I had my outfit. It was different, but Susie assured me it would work. Next item on the agenda was to make a hairdresser’s appointment for Thursday afternoon. I would be getting a cut and blow dry, and then I would be going back to Susie’s to get ready. She said it was best that Toni didn’t see me till she actually picked me up that evening.
“Honestly, Shona, it’s not that bad.”
Susie was trying to convince me that the hairdressing disaster I had just sat through was okay. I knew it wasn’t, there was no way I wanted to go out with my hair looking like Carol Decker’s after she stuck her finger in an electric socket! I had big hair…really big hair.
My natural curls had been ‘scrunch’ dried and goodness only knew what the hairdresser had done to it with the scissors. This was a disaster. I went to Susie’s bathroom to shower and to attempt to restore some normality to my hair but after an hour, it was clear that nothing was going to work. The cut was the problem.
“I can’t go out.”
“I’m sure we can do something, I’ll get some clasps and maybe with a little more hairsp…”
Susie didn’t bother to finish the word as she caught the glare I sent her way. No more hairspray would be touching my hair that day.
Eddie was sitting reading the newspaper when he made a suggestion from behind the printed sheets.
We both looked at him in disbelief. Shona removed the newspaper so she could see him.
“Have you lost your mind? She wants to look great for Toni, not call her over to see the disas…er difficulty she is having with her new haircut.”
Eddie simply shrugged, “I gave you the answer, it’s up to you.”
Susie frowned and muttered something about men as she went in search of clasps. I swear I saw Eddie giggle from behind the paper. He folded it and looked at me. He took a close look at my new haircut and then nodded.
“No clasp is going to fix that, don’t worry, Shona, you shall go to the ball, be back in a few minutes.”
I frowned at him, he and Toni could be so frustrating at times and they were so cryptic. Susie returned, wondering where he’d gone.
“He said no clasp is going to fix my hair, told me not to worry, made a Cinderella reference then left.”
“Weird.” she declared. I had to agree.
Susie had a go with the clasps but nothing was working. Then Eddie returned…with Toni!
“Eddie!” Susie chastised, but he didn’t seem fazed.
I looked at Toni and burst into tears.
“It’s a disaster!” I howled.
Toni lifted my chin up and had a good look.
“That it is.”
“Toni, I think she could do with a little support.” This came from Susie.
Eddie was laughing now, I don’t know what he found so funny. And Susie started on him instead.
Toni then produced a pair of scissors and I decided enough was enough. They had had their fun.
“Okay, that’s it, the joke is over.”
Toni sat me in a kitchen chair, and when she started to come at me with her scissors, I panicked. My hair was bad enough already.
“What are you doing?” I practically jumped out of the chair.
Toni put her hands on my shoulders to keep me in place. “Trust me, Shona, I can fix your hair.’
“Toni, I know you are good at many things, but I don’t think I can let you cut my hair.”
“Yes you can, I’m a trained hairdresser.”
“A hairdresser!” Susie and I said this in unison we were astonished.
“How do you think Eddie’s hair always looks so good? I’m not cutting it anymore by the way, Edward. You will no longer be keeping my secret. I’ve been blackmailed enough by you.”
Eddie looked aghast, “Aww, come on, Toni, you wouldn’t make me go to the local barber?” he pleaded.
She just raised an eyebrow at him, she would.
Toni, it turned out, genuinely was a trained hairdresser and a very good one at that. Finally, the mystery of her college course had been solved. She made a terrific job of rescuing my ‘haircut from hell’, as it had been quickly dubbed, and though my hair was a bit shorter than I would have normally chosen to wear it, I had to admit it did look good. I did miss some of my curls though, but they would grow back in time.
Toni left straight after finishing my hair and said she’d be back at 9pm to pick me up. That gave me two hours to get ready, plenty of time I thought, but not according to Susie. She declared that we had to get a move on, there was still so much to be done. I couldn’t think what but, two hours later, I finally understood why some women took hours to get ready. I doubted I would ever have the skill or patience to attempt it by myself, but I had to admit that my make-up did look nice, I still wasn’t sure about the painted finger and toe nails though, but I did enjoy the two glasses of wine I had. Susie said it was to loosen me up and I think it worked.
Susie insisted that she herself would open the door to Toni when she arrived. I was standing in the living room awaiting my inspection. Susie had said that Toni was going to have a tough job on her hands tonight, keeping other women away from me. I just giggled at the thought then frowned, I was sure she was kidding. Then again, if the look on Toni’s face was anything to go by maybe Susie was on to something.
Toni walked into the room smiling, I don’t think I will ever forget the way the expression on her face transformed from a look of shock to out and out want. I had seen that look before but never in presence of another person, we were always alone. As we walked out the door Susie grabbed me and whispered in my ear.
“I told you.” She sounded so excited, like it was a job well done. I decided I could learn a lot from Susie if I was so inclined.
We drove to an area of the city I hadn’t been in before. On the outskirts of Edinburgh’s New Town with all its grand Georgian architecture, almost leading into the exclusive Stockbridge area, was what Toni described as Edinburgh’s best gay bar, ‘The Laughing Duck’.
We walked past the two bomber jacketed bouncers into the bar. It was bright, which I think surprised me. The room was long and reasonably narrow, with black velvet covered booths lining each wall and a row of glass tables and metal chairs facing them. There was a bar straight ahead, where the room then opened out and extended further back. I could hear a disco beat playing in the background, it wasn’t loud and it was easy to make conversation as a lot of people were doing in groups or couples sitting or standing around. It was busy, but not intimidating.
A couple of women stopped and spoke with Toni, she immediately introduced me as her girlfriend and we all shook hands. Toni was catching up on the latest news and what they had been up to and she then invited the two women, who were called Irene and Mags, down to the Illicit Still one night for a drink. I was really enjoying this date; it wasn’t what I expected at all, especially after the things Toni had previously said. We went further into the bar where an older gentleman Toni obviously knew spotted her.
“Toni, darling! Where have you been hiding yourself?”
Before Toni had a chance to answer, he continued, “Oh, my. Who is this divine young thing?”
He gave Toni a big smile and a look I found hard to describe, perhaps it might have been called ‘saucy’.
Toni laughed at his antics. “Brian, this is Shona, my girlfriend. Shona, meet Brian, my uncle.”
Yes, I saw it immediately; Brian was Keith’s brother, albeit an entirely more refined version, but I could see the resemblance. The idea of Keith and Brian both growing up in the same household struck me as strangely humorous. One looking like a rough lumberjack and the other, well I could only say that, even with my small island background, Brian was without a doubt a gay man, I hadn’t really met any before that moment, but I supposed he would be perhaps considered stereotypical. He was genuinely flamboyant.
Toni and Brian started to laugh at the look on my face. “I know it’s a shock, sweet pea, especially since you have met my older brother.”
I nodded, the Martin’s were just full of surprises.
“Listen girls I have to run, I have my eye on a bit of co…” Brian stopped short at the glare Toni gave him. “Oh, behave, Toni, she will have heard worse around you. Haven’t you, Shona?”
I just smiled my answer; I didn’t want to rat Toni out.
“Aye, I thought as much.”
“Go get your man, I’ll chat with you later if you’re still around.”
“Oh, I love it when you get all butch.”
“Me, never. Bye girls.” With a quick wave, Brian left us in search of someone.
Although I felt at times as though they were all talking another language I found it fascinating. We spent an hour in the bar, but I had noticed a lot of people coming in and disappearing downstairs and I had assumed it was the toilets.
“Are you ready for your real education?”
Toni took my hand, “Come on.”
She led me downstairs. The walls were painted black and all I could see was a black door at the bottom, with a muted bass sound coming through it. As soon as Toni opened the door, I was immediately hit with a blast of noise and hot air. We walked in and my real education that evening began.
The music was loud, but not like the Night Club I had been to, this wasn’t a disco with men shuffling their feet to pop tunes. This was a full out frenzy, and they could dance, boy could they dance. The music was different, there was a high energy beat with lots of bass thumping under it. I could hear the lyrics to the song and I stared wide-eyed at Toni who had a great big smile on her face, which I was soon matching. It was so loud that I could barely hear her shout over the music.
“It’s wild isn’t it?”
I nodded, wild wasn’t the word, I was watching the men dance as the chorus played again.
Homosexuality - YES SIR!
Do you want to get next to me?
Homosexuality - YES SIR!
Anything to fill your need
I couldn’t take it all in at once, it was raw, hedonistic, sexual. A mass of denim and leather, all moving to the same beat; hips thrusting, sweaty, many bare-chested; I was on sensory overload. It was spectacular; I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
The women weren’t dancing, not to this song anyway. They lined the walls surrounding the dance floor, some arm in arm, caressing, kissing, occasionally more. The longer we were there, the more I was taking in. There was a certain smell that permeated the air, what was it? I saw men passing small bottles amongst each other and putting them to their nose. I looked to Toni for confirmation.
I frowned, I had no idea what that was.
Toni put her mouth right to my ear. “Amyl Nitrite, it enhances sexual pleasure.”
I looked at her with raised eyebrows, I had a lot to learn it seemed, maybe we could discuss this later, but for now, I just wanted to watch.
Boom Boom Boom
Let's go back to my room
So we can do it all night
And you can make me feel right
The lyrics to the songs were sexually explicit and there was no doubting the meaning behind them. The beat was thoroughly addictive and I easily felt myself moving to it. The longer we were down in the basement the more I took in, the free condoms and lubricant that were available at the side of the bar. The fibre optic lighting that lit up the little window displays set into the black walls, each holding a little duck in a nest. The two men getting hot and heavy and when one put his head to the others crotch, Toni turned me to look in another direction. I think that was what she was referring to when she made me promise not to walk around with my mouth hanging open. I was a little shocked that they hadn’t even gone to find a quiet corner, or the bathroom!
Toni got me up to dance to a song. I really liked the beat of this one and the lyrics.
I was a male stripper in a gogo bar
After that the tempo changed with a couple of slow songs. I loved the George Michael song, A Different Corner.
Turn a different corner
And we never would have met
I always thought of Toni and me when I heard that line. That day almost two years ago when I decided to get off the bus a stop early. That chance meeting had taken me on a journey of discovery and to the one I love.
Toni moved her hands over my hips, then slid them further down the outside of my legs, she stopped as she encountered my stocking belt and drew back to look at me.
“You’re wearing stockings,” she husked.
I watched as she swallowed hard. Then her hands continued to move over the same area, before dropping a little lower, it was driving me wild.
“I can’t wait any longer, the thought of you in stockings is driving me wild. I have to have you.”
My eyes grew wide at the thought of what Toni had just said; she manoeuvred us to a corner to allow us a little more privacy.
“Won’t people see us?”
“No, I promise.”
I knew I should have stopped her but a part of me didn’t want to, that part won out.
Toni deftly turned my skirt so that the zip was at the front. Then she lowered it, her hand snaking inside and stroking the tops of my thighs. I felt my knees instantly go weak at her touch.
“Don’t worry,” Toni whispered, “I won’t let you fall.”
She took a firm grip around my waist with her free hand while the other continued to stroke my thighs, building the heat between my legs. Again, I knew we should stop, but I was already too turned on to pull back. I felt Toni begin to stroke me through my cotton panties; my feet naturally spread a little further apart offering her more access. She pushed aside the final barrier and began to stroke my clitoris, with a more direct touch. I groaned, knowing it wouldn’t be long.
“Oh, god, Toni. Don’t stop.”
“Mmm, you’re so wet. You feel so good.” Toni husked in my ear and that was all it took to send me over into that blissful place that I craved from the moment she touched me.
Toni held onto me tightly as the tremors from my climax ripped through my body. She caught my mouth in a passionate to kiss, to mute my cries of ecstasy. We were both breathing hard and leaning into each other.
“We can continue this at home, you want to get out of here?”
I nodded, not yet able to find my voice. I watched in rapt fascination as Toni licked her fingers clean of my juices. It sent a new wave of arousal through my body. This night was definitely far from over and I intended to have a very big say in what was happening next.
As we broke apart and turned to start making our exit from the bar, there were a few knowing looks in my direction from some of the women nearby. It was much too late to be concerned, I had just had sex in a public place and it was fantastic!
“Thank goodness the hungry little thing is taking a nap.” Isobel said as she added a little salt to her food.
“I can hardly get any time to myself during the day, all he ever seems to do is want to feed.”
Isobel and I were upstairs with Jack, eating our dinner while he slept, much to Isobel’s relief. Jack was almost two months old and literally sucking the life out of poor Isobel.
I looked over at Jack; he was so peaceful it was hard to believe that just an hour ago he had been screaming the place down. Isobel had been taking a nap and he didn’t stop until she fed him, as soon as he latched on, we never heard another peep. It could be really difficult getting him to keep to set feeding times, especially with the temptation to feed him early just to quiet him down.
“I wonder where Toni has gotten too? She will have to put her dinner in the microwave if she is going to be much longer.”
I looked at the time, Isobel was right she was running late. She might just have to skip dinner and start work.
“Hmm, she is a little late, I might be on my own in the bar for a while. Speaking of work, how’s the job going?”
Isobel had talked Toni into giving her a job, so she could help pay her own way in the flat. Toni had initially said no as it was too soon after the baby was born and Isobel needed her rest.
Isobel had put forward such a strong case that Toni had capitulated while muttering something about not being able to refuse a ‘MacLeod’ woman anything.
Isobel had said she could do the cleaning of the bar every morning, instead of whoever was on early shift, adding that she would include weekends too.
I thought it was a terrific idea as Jack would be just upstairs with Toni and me or if need be, Isobel could take him downstairs with her.
Jack and Isobel were officially banned from the bar during opening hours; Toni said the cigarette smoke was bad for them. I loved how she cared as much for their well being as I did. I had noticed that the smoky atmosphere in the Illicit Still wasn’t as thick or dense as in the previous bars I had worked. Toni had installed powerful extractor fans, which had really made a difference, but we still stank at the end of the night. Everything from our clothes to our hair, there was no escaping it. It was especially noticeable if I hadn’t been working and Toni came up late and I gave her a hug. She always popped into the shower before bed, to remove the smell, I did too, it had become a little ritual for us and, for that reason, I especially enjoyed the times when we both worked an evening shift together. Our shower together was becoming ever more interesting.
As I thought of my girlfriend, I wondered where she was. She could have stopped off in the bar to talk to Eddie. I hadn’t seen her for a few hours, but I was expecting her really soon as she was due to start her evening shift.
The phone rang and Isobel picked it up.
“No, hang on, I’ll put Shona on.”
“Toni was supposed to be taking over from me five minutes ago, it’s not like her to be late. Have you heard from her?”
“No, not since she went out at lunchtime.”
“Do you know where she was going?”
I thought about Eddie’s question and realised Toni hadn’t actually said where she was going. After lunch she had grabbed her car keys and with a quick kiss to my lips, said she would see me for dinner. Toni had been in a good mood about something, but I hadn’t asked what, thinking she would tell me in her own good time. Now I was getting concerned, it wasn’t like her to be late for anything, especially work.
“I don’t know, Eddie, I’ll come downstairs.”
I hung up the phone and Isobel was looking at me with concern.
“Is everything alright, Shona?”
“I honestly don’t know, Izzie. Toni hasn’t turned up for work yet.”
“Oh, that’s unusual.”
We shared a look of concern.
“You don’t think…”
“I don’t know what to think,” I snapped, cutting off Isobel’s question and startling Jack in the process. He started to scream.
“I’m so sorry, Isobel.”
“No, it’s fine, Shona, you go downstairs and I’ll get Jack settled.”
I had cut Isobel off because I didn’t want to consider what might have happened to Toni. Another beating? A car accident? Should I start calling the hospital? The police? No, I had to stay calm. Pull myself together and not start thinking the worst. I was sure there would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for her absence - but it just wasn’t like her…
I nodded at Isobel. “I’ll speak with Eddie and I’ll let you know as soon as Toni turns up.” I attempted a reassuring smile. But Isobel saw right through it.
“I’m sure everything is fine.” She rubbed my arm then pulled me in for a quick hug.
“She is probably stuck in traffic as we speak, cursing and looking for a way to get past everyone.”
I laughed a little at that image; it was entirely possible that was exactly what she was doing.
I went downstairs and offered to take over from Eddie, I was due to start work in an hour anyway. He refused.
“No, I’ll hang around until Toni gets here.”
I expected him to say that but knew he must have been starving, so I persuaded him to go upstairs and get some dinner. When he returned twenty minutes later there was still no sign of Toni.
We continued to serve customers but our eyes went to the door every time it opened in the hope that Toni would walk through it, but nothing. Every time there was a lull, we would rack out brains trying to remember if Toni had mentioned anything about where she was going that day, but neither of us could recall a thing.
Susie arrived in the bar an hour later, she and Eddie had arranged to go out that evening, but he had called her to cancel and Susie had decided to come to the bar and wait for news of Toni.
It was a busy Thursday night and the constant stream of customers was keeping us busy behind the bar, but as the minutes ticked past into hours I really was having great difficulty keeping a lid on my anxiety. This really wasn’t like Toni at all.
Isobel popped down from upstairs for the third time in the last hour, everyone was becoming increasingly more worried, it was 9.30pm, and still no sign of my wayward lover.
“Still nothing?” she asked.
I shook my head; the building knot of fear in my abdomen was really getting hard to control.
“Maybe I should go to the police station?” Susie offered.
Susie and Isobel had already been upstairs making calls to hospitals in the region and the police, but there had been no news of Toni being admitted or arrested, well the latter, while not desirable, was not beyond the realms of possibility. They had also tried to call Keith to see if he knew anything about her plans that day, but he was at work. Cath knew nothing and had offered to come into work, I told Susie we didn’t need the extra cover, but would call her back as soon as we had any news.
I answered Susie, “Do you think going into the station would make a difference?”
“Oh hell, I don’t know, Shona, I just feel so helpless, I want to do something.”
I understood that sentiment perfectly; I felt the exact same way. The question was what? I had no idea what else to do, short of going out and looking for her…I stopped dead in my tracks. I had been turning to face a customer at the end of the bar. It couldn’t be that simple could it?
“What’s wrong, Shona?”
I looked at the concerned faces of Susie and Isobel, “I need to go somewhere. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
I was already making my way to the door when I shouted to Eddie. “I’ll be right back, oh and the gentleman at the end of the bar wants serving.”
The last thing I saw before I turned and left the pub was the identical puzzled looks on their faces, but I had no time to explain as I rushed out, almost crashing into a patron on the way in.
“Woah, where’s the fire, hen?”
I didn’t stop to answer. I just ran to the one place I hoped my girlfriend would be.
It was a warm, humid August evening, almost dark and I was running along Portobello High Street in a pencil skirt, a short top and two-inch heels. I stopped and took off my heels, then lifted my skirt above my knees so I could run faster; totally oblivious to the curious looks I received along the way.
Finally I was at my destination, I hoped and prayed and my prayers were answered, there in the Daisy Park, all alone sat Toni Martin. I had no idea what had brought her here and in that moment I was too relieved at seeing her to care. I opened the gate and walked towards her.
“Toni?” I called softly.
She turned and looked at me, a frown turned into a sad smile.
I took a seat beside her on the bench.
“Everyone is worried about you.”
She had such pain in her eyes it hurt me to look at her.
“I’m sorry about that,” she husked.
She looked back out over the park taking a deep breath of the cooling night air.
“He’s not getting out.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. I looked at her for clarification, she was sitting unmoving, tears streaming down her cheeks.
She turned to me. “My brother, Ross.”
Oh, God, I remembered now. Toni had told me around a year ago that he was up for parole this year. She had been so hopeful at the time, because he sounded like he was finally getting his act together.
“He got into a fight in prison, it’s being treated as attempted murder. Drugs were involved.”
“I’m so sorry Toni.” I didn’t know what else to say.
She shook her head. “I was really looking forward to getting my brother back, to you meeting him, and maybe even having him work with us at the bar.” She stopped herself from continuing, returning to reality.
“I should have known better than to build my hopes up where Ross is concerned. He always lets us down.”
I watched as she visibly pulled herself together. She stood up from the bench and offered me her hand.
“Come on, I want to get home to my friends and family.”
Toni said so much in that one statement. Myself, Isobel and Jack were her family and she was effectively dismissing any possibility of her brother being included. Her feelings were raw and I hoped that in time, the situation would change.
We returned to the bar at closing time. The relief on the faces of our friends was plain to see. Susie immediately popped upstairs to let Isobel know and to make a quick call to Cath.
I took Toni upstairs where Eddie joined us as soon as the last customer left the bar. Once there, Toni initially apologised to everyone, for having caused us to worry about her. It was easy for them to forgive her when hearing about her day. She had received some terrible personal news.
We all sat around drinking tea and coffee and chatting for a little while and I popped my stocking clad feet onto the coffee table. They were pounding hot and painful.
“Oh, Shona. Look at your feet!” Isobel exclaimed.
Everyone did along with me and immediately noticed that the soles were bloodied. In my haste to get to the Daisy Park and my relief at finding Toni, I hadn’t noticed the mess of them. Isobel was already fetching a basin of hot water and a bottle of Dettol. As soon as the fluid hit the water the smell was all over the sitting room and that seemed to be the cue for everyone to leave.
Eddie and Susie said their goodnights and Toni accompanied them downstairs to lock up after they left. Isobel left the room to check on Jack.
I removed my stockings, popped my aching feet into the basin of water, and immediately wished I had a rag to bite down on. The Dettol was getting into all the little cuts and stinging profusely. I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself that it was doing me good by helping stop any infection.
Toni returned a minute later and gave me a sympathetic look.
“I’ll take you to the nurse first thing tomorrow morning and get your feet looked at properly.”
She kneeled down beside my chair taking my hand in hers.
“I’m sorry for causing you so much pain.”
“I know. And I’m sorry that you are in pain.”
She laid a soft palm on my cheek. “Thanks for caring.”
Toni fetched a clean towel to dry my feet, then lifted me in her arms and carried me to the bedroom.
We held each other close that night. My feet would heal in a few days, but I wondered how long it would take Toni to get over her disappointment. One thing was for sure, she wouldn’t labour over it, she was extremely resilient in that respect, but even if it didn’t show outwardly, it didn’t mean she wouldn’t be hurting inside. I knew differently.
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