If you haven’t already done so, you might want to read the first five installments of this story.  Just click on the Prose button above and tackle everything labelled Skinhead in sequence.  Thanks for reading, and I hope you like it.

I had nothing in partiulcar planned for the following weekend, so I decided to accept Lawrence’s offer and accompany him to Scotland.  We were going to visit his relatives for a big family reunion.  I wanted to explore the Highlands, drink some local scotch, and try haggis;  I didn’t think that I’d be too interested in hanging out with a bunch of Lawrence-types.  One was about all I could handle.  But, to his credit, Lawrence had proven to be a capable guide in the past week.  He had even found me a decent Chihuahuha-style restaurant in London–El Coyote Invalido, on Camden High Street–although I’d swear that they put some weird and inapproriate English cheese on the enchiladas.  Still, it was pretty good.

Most of the trains leaving London for Scotland begin at Saint Pancras or King’s Cross Station, both in north London.  A lot of peculiar people hang around those stations, so many that north London has a reputation for having the highest concentration of crackpots and weirdos–“rubbish,” the English them, outcasts.  I saw at least a dozen who would probably be better off in an institution sprinkled around the King’s Cross waiting area.  They weren’t just talking to themselves (I do that sometimes); they were yelling at nonexistent people and fending off imaginary attacks.  A few sat slumped against the station’s tiled columns, furiously smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, wide-eyed and mumbling.  I saw two or three who had withdrawn into catatonic stupor, right there in the station.  The whole thing put me in mind of a Turkish madhouse.

Years later, I made friends with Bev, a nurse who had been a Catholic missionary in north London around the time that I was there.  She told me about having to de-louse the rubbish who had come to her clinic for help, having to wash them off with a high-pressure hose and an abrasive sponge.  Some of them had ulcerated wounds populated by maggots.  It could take most of a day just to get them cleaned up.  None of them were alcoholics or drug addicts, she said, because they didn’t have the money to make the purchases.  They weren’t beggars; they were just castaways, lost.

Lawrence had a knack for ignoring them.  One of them came up to me by the escalator–it was made out of wood, like a lot of escalators in London–that goes down to the Underground, and he asked me if I had been up the river.  Before I could regain my composure and tell him that I didn’t know what he was talking about, he smiled and said “You’ve been up the river” and walked away.

Lawrence and I finally climbed aboard the Flying Scotsman, London to Inverness, and chugged off for the Highlands.  The train made several stops, including one just north of Hadrian’s Wall, where there’s a beautiful view of four streams coming together from completely different directions, through the soft green hills dotted with heather and converging to form the River Tweed.

I sat on the cold train and looked, through a scratched and yellowed window that blurred everything, at all the sheep and the dogs gamboling and wandering on the green and purple hills.  I wanted to get off the train right there and go sit on the big, slippery, black boulder that was caught smack in the middle of a golden sunbeam, kick off my shoes, and steep my naked feet in that stream, right there among the trout, the sheep, and the collies, but naturally I didn’t.

The train picked up five young and boisterous Scottish soldiers who yammered away in an indecipherable dialect.  When I asked Lawrence what they were saying, because I thought their language sounded both jaw-cracking and lyrical, he said that he didn’t have any idea and went back to reading an article about a band called Saxon Violins in a rock and roll magazine.

We finally made it to Stirling, a very pretty Scottish town.  There’s a hill on either side of it, with an old castle on top of one and an old church on top of the other.  The day we were there, the whole town was blanketed with a barely perceptible mist.  The sun was shining and it was warm, thanks to the air currents that blow in off the Atlantic (it’s not unusual to see palm trees in that part of Scotland, as odd as that sounds).  It made me wish that I had gone to appreciate spring in Scotland from the beginning, instead of in London.

Lawrence and I went up to Cambuskenneth Abbey–the church on the hill–trudging along a steep and narrow trail beset with mud, weeds, and thick, ancient tree roots like speed-bumps.  When we got to the top, to the church itself, we saw a sign that said that the abbey was open to tourists only on alternate Tuesdays.  We were there on a Saturday.  We could have avoided the exertion, at least, if someone had put that sign at the bottom of the hill, but we figured that–as long as we were there–we’d look at it from the outside, the inside being inaccesible.  We admired the peculiar architecture, kind of a stylized art deco-gothic, walking around it, taken in by the delicate casements and fierce gargoyles.  The dazzling, clean granite was a perfect contrast to all of the grimy and dark buildings in London.

When we got around to the back of the abbey, we saw a man lying face-down in the grass, his head wrenched around so that his chin almost touched his shoulder blade, his arms and legs splayed out in a curious swastika fashion.  His gold and black striped neck-tie flapped in the breeze.  My first thought was that he had had a heart attack, but my second thought was that he had jumped, or been pushed, from the red granite bell tower, which was just behind us.

Lawrence and I didn’t wait around to compare thoughts; we just looked at each other and started quickly down the hill.

“I saw a phone box at the bottom of the hill,” I told him.

“I don’t want to be the one to call 999,” he said (that being the British version of 911).  “You do it.  You’re an American; they won’t do anything to you.”

Before we could settle this point of contention, it became unnecessary.  Several police cars and two ambulances, with those hee-haw sirens blaring, rumbled past us on the narrow little road; we had to step onto the weedy shoulder to avoid getting run over.  The police car at the end of the convoy stopped, paused, and then backed up down the hill, to us.  The officer was very polite and smiling, and he spoke slowly and carefully to accommodate our difficulty with the language.  He asked us who we were, where we were from, where we were going, and whether we had seen anything odd.

Lawrence had panicked when the officer got out of his car and walked toward us.

“I don’t know what’s going on.  What are we supposed to do?”

I knew that he meant that question rhetorically, but I went ahead and answered him:  “You don’t need to know anything.  Just tell him the truth and do what he tells you.”

After the officer let us go, we walked across the River Forth, which splits the town in two.  We crossed the river on the very same bridge where Scotland’s William Wallace had clobbered General Lord Surrey and his English troops back in 1297.  Surrey had horsemen, swords, battle axes, and the longbowmen who had conquered Wales for Edward I.  I don’t really know how it happened, but somehow Wallace and his gang of ill-equipped peasants sent Surrey running.  There’s a bronze plaque on the bridge:  “None fled faster than the noble Earl of Surrey, for he arrived first at the nearby stronghold of Berwick, on a horse so far spent that it was never able to eat corn again.”  I found that hilarious, but Lawrence didn’t.  It bothered him.

We hiked up the other hill, to Stirling Castle, and I’m happy to report that no drama met us there.  We stood on the windy battlements, leaning on carronades that still look over the Blairdrummond Plain like old soldiers who haven’t heard the wars are over, and we looked at the big red cows that Scots call muckle coos snoozing in broad strokes of sunlight on the green hillsides.

I don’t know what prompted Lawrence to think of it then, but that’s when he told me the story of his middle name, Weymyss, and a little about the saint he was named after.  He was very proud of Saint Lawrence, since he had stood up to the Roman Prefecture, but he didn’t know the story of Saint Lawrence and the gridiron, which I told him as we were standing around the courtydard of the old castle.  I told him about Saint Lawrence being stretched out over a huge cooking grate, getting grilled to a turn like a fine young leghorn, and at one point telling his captors, “Okay, I’m done on this side.  You can turn me over now.”

While I was telling Lawrence this story about his namesake, he was standing on bunches of banisteria and laurifolia that grow on the ground there at Stirling Castle, crushing the arching, downy branches and little white flowers and reddish-orange fruit under his Paki-bashing feet.

An elderly volunteer–a castle docent, tour guide, and matron–very polite–asked Lawrence to please mind the walk, and he silently complied, stepping off of the plants and back onto the rough and ancient paving stones of the castle’s courtyard.

The next day, we went to church with Lawrence’s family.  They were a fun bunch, even though I could understand only about half of what they were saying.  All of them–the Weymyss family, the Blodgetts, the Aulde clan, the Fyvies, Ayrs, and Craigmins–lived right near one another; an entire section of Stirling was populated exclusively by Lawrence’s relatives.  They lived in adjacent squares of white-washed and copper-roofed houses on the northern bank of the River Forth, and each square of houses was built around a little garden ringed with bright pink and purple flowers.  In one corner of each square was a communal outhouse, which didn’t seem to bother anyone.  They spent a lot of each day sitting in their gardens, eating and drinking and talking, singing, watching babies crawl around on the grass.  I thought, “Food, drink, talk, music, babies, an outhouse.  Who could ask for more?”

Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed my time with Lawrence’s family very much.  I hadn’t ever given much thought to having kids, but there was something about a garden full of strong and reckless babies that made me sorry that Lawrence and I had spent so much time snooping around dusty castles and abbeys, acting like a couple of tourists.

Lawrence’s extended family pretty well embodied the Scottish notion of thrawn–they put a great price on independence, discipline, pride, and self-sufficiency, but ironically, at the same time, community and symposia and friendship.  I had the feeling that it was always spring in Scotland; there were always lovers in the blooming parks, marriages in the news.  It wasn’t a good or ordinary day if you didn’t hear how Mrs. Mauchlin’s wee Colin was progressing, or whether little Maggie was still sucking her thumb, or whether Ellie down the lane had been safely delivered of her twins.

At the church–not the abbey, but a modest little cottage-looking thing up in the hills–we all took communion, including Lawrence.  I watched his relatives watching him take the wafer and the wine, and I began to get the feeling that it really wasn’t a family reunion so much as it was an invitation extended to Lawrence, an invitation to return to the old union.  He was a sheep who had wandered off, and they wanted to let him know that he was welcome to come back.

We were all kneeling at the rail before the altar.  I was around the middle of the clan, between Grandmother Fyvie and a little cousin called the Nipper.  Lawrence was toward the end, way to my left, and when Father Claer got down toward him, we all turned our heads to watch, and it was like he was another baby in the garden.  Everything he had said earlier about violence and being a skinhead seemed like it had come from a dream or a very distant memory.

The jarring reminder, the thing out of place, was Lawrence’s bald and tattooed head silhouetted by the beveled, cut-glass church window set deep into the thick white wall, beyond which was a view of the silent hills, the Forth, and the spire of the abbey across the valley.

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