The clever one

This morning I got an email from my sister, and was once again reminded that we are very, very different. She spent her morning, voluntarily, at a museum coin club. I spent it suffering the aftereffects of enthusiastic wine consumption at a party last night in Toronto.

My sister and I are a year and a bit apart, age-wise, and a world apart, character-wise. But when we were kids, distant cousins and parental acquaintances usually had no clue as to which one of us had been hauled along to the family reunion or charity dinner and was sulking before them. I was asked, insultingly often, whether I was “the clever one or the other one.” Really often. While it was nice that they couldn’t tell right away that I was lacking in the intellectual stakes when compared to my wee sister, I was never pleased to have to admit to the ignominious title of “the other one.”

I rambled on about that point in the Memphis chapter of The Scottish Ambassador, but what I didn’t go into is that almost as many people asked her if she was “the nice one or the other one” and each time she’d frown and have to accept this insulting “other one” runner-up role.

The thing is that she is actually a far, far nicer individual than I am and that I, both then and now, think I’m pretty damn clever for keeping my weekends coin collection-free.

I posted the first chunk o’ f this chapter of the book the other day, but here, for your perusal, is that ramble from the Memphis chapter — this excerpt kicks off just after I’ve got off a flight from Chicago. I’ll post more bits about my Memphis shenanigans over the next few days.


It’s hot outside, but not as hot as I was expecting. I had thought that the combination of lofty temperatures and high humidity would make walking out of the airport and into the Memphis evening similar to sauntering into a bowl of soup, but it’s pleasant. A light breeze rustles between the concrete pillars of the airport terminal as I clamber into a cab.

For want of anything more scintillating to say, I tell Jama, the Somalian taxi driver who whisks me away, that it’s my first time in Memphis. He shorts with disdain and tells me,

“I am not a fan of this city. In my next life I will not come back to Memphis. I don’t like Elvis.”

It’s nice to meet a man already considering accommodation options for the life after this one. Lacking a ready answer to this revelation, I make an attempt at an understanding smile. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror: I look like I have just taken my first mouthful of parboiled squirrel.

We pass billboards for cheque cashing businesses, phone networks and drivetime radio shows, directions to Little Rock and Nashville, and shacks with cagey-looking signs such as “Tammy’s XXX Roadside Emporium” emblazoned across their low-browed frontages. Cars and trucks with Tennessee and Mississippi plates whoosh by alongside. We coast along the Coretta Scott King Memorial Highway. I spy a billboard for “Elvis Presley’s Graceland” and find myself grinning. Let the Elvis begin! Although I am not about to admit it to Jama, I do like Elvis. We veer off at Exit 5B for Graceland.

Jama breaks into my contemplation of the King, “They speak what in Scotland, Dutch?”

I launch into a poor explanation of what Scots speak and where Scotland is.

Jama interrupts, “The movie! The movie with the Australian man!” he exclaims with more excitement than he has displayed at any previous stage of our ten miles together. I sigh.

“Yes. Braveheart.”

He begins to warm to the subject. “Braveheart! Yes, yes! And this is true? The ending? The quarters?”

Unbeknownst to Jama, the ending of Braveheart is something of a sore subject for me. When it came out, I went to see the film with my sister. As we stood in line for tickets, it began to become clear to me that she was about to give away crucial plot details. “No, don’t give away the ending!” I blurted. She stopped and looked horrified. “You don’t know whether Scotland or England won the Battle of Stirling Bridge?” I didn’t. In fact, the name of the battle was new to me. In my defence, during my 12 years of schooling in Glasgow, we never studied Scottish history. And the task of spending extra time learning such trivial details was something I left to my more studious sibling, while I learned off more important facts, such as star signs of all members of Duran Duran and lyrics of the entire Eurythmics back catalogue.

American National Public Radio once did a show called “This Is the End: Best Movie Death Scenes” and alongside a number of James Cagney movies, the Wicked Witch of the West’s downfall in The Wizard of Oz and the repeated demises of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, stands Braveheart. Illustrious company. While I assume that Braveheart’s gory finale was the only one with any historical accuracy, I’m really not the person to ask.

Facts such as this are the kinds of thing I would normally check with my sister. She is a reliable alternative when there isn’t a convenient encyclopedia to hand. In fact, were she to disagree with any encyclopedic details presented, I would put my money on her. Whenever one wants to know how many changes of dictatorship an ancient Persian kingdom went through in the fourth century, what dialect is more prevalent in North Central Angola or the swiftest route through the Appeninnes if traveling with half a dozen overly-burdened elephants and a phalanx of warriors, she is the woman to ask. However, I suspect she might not appreciate my enquiry at 2 a.m., Berlin-time, so have to come up with the answer myself.

“Um, yeah. I think.”

Jama is grinning. “That is a bad ending for a man. You think so?” He asks gleefully.

I do think so and nod emphatically. Jama beams. He may not like Elvis, but he certainly likes disembowlings.

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