Scotland's writers have never been more confident - or less tied to "Scottish" themes. Here we have
Councillor Bramton pushed her glasses against the bridge of her nose and uncrossed and recrossed her legs. Her trouser hems rode up, showing a bulge of flesh over the top of her socks, and creases stretched out from where she had fastened her jacket buttons over her bosom and her tummy. She opened her handbag a crack. She slipped her hand in, found the tough little spine of the passport by touch, jammed between the pages of her Filofax, and felt for the ticket. There was something. Delicate edges scratched at her moist fingertips. The ticket. Or receipts. She sat still on the minibus seat. She cleared her throat and said that it was hot.
Irina turned lazily from the front seat and looked Bramton up and down. Her eyes travelled over the councillor's black suit like the eyes of children in a tough neighbourhood watching an outsider park a lame car: they'd rather trash it than own it. Irina was wearing a white jacket and white trousers of thin synthetic material and an azure T-shirt with a fake amber necklace. She had no hips and not much in the way of breasts. She was 24 and looked 14. Her skin was yellow and almost translucent, like a waxwork. A storm of bright colours had burst on to the local women since the councillors arrived and the streets were full of revealed skin. Bramton wondered if she should tell Irina what a bad idea it was to wear dark coloured underwear with thin white trousers. Perhaps it was the only underwear she had. It was a poor country.
"The weather is often hot in the middle of May," said Irina. "Ukraine has a continental climate. In June in the south it can already be like a . . ." she hesitated, as if guessing the filling of a chocolate in her mouth ". . . furnace."
"I'm going to make a note," said Bramton. She opened her bag and took out the Filofax. The clasp popped and the compressed pages sprang apart of their own accord, yielding the gold on claret of the lion and the unicorn, the crown, the harp and the multiple occupancy lions of the nations, crowded into their four adjacent rooms. Flatsharing beasts. The ticket to Edinburgh was inside the passport. Bramton found the page headed "Notes On Kiev Trip, May 1992" and wrote: Ukraine in May - summer clothing advisable - recommend linen, cotton, sun hat, dark glasses, sun lotion - high factor.
"If he doesn't come soon, you'll miss your plane," said Irina.
"What?" Bramton's heart kicked. Her cat alone, unfed; it might seek food elsewhere. She loved her cat, but didn't trust it.
Irina blinked, examined a nail and swivelled further round, hugging the back of her seat. The upholstery squeaked. "Do you speak English, or Scottish?" she asked.
"And Tommy speaks Scottish."
"We both speak English and we're both Scottish. If he spoke another language, you wouldn't understand him, would you?"
"Often I can't."
"Councillor Scroggan speaks English with a Scottish accent, and I speak English with an English accent. Irina, I'm concerned about our flight."
"Tommy told me that he speaks Scottish. He said it was 'Scots'."
"He doesn't know what he's talking about. He can't tell the difference between a language and a dialect."
"That's what my grandfather says about Ukrainian. He says it's a dialect of Russian. But that's not true. The minister who invited you, Spaskin, he's Russian, and he's had to learn to speak Ukrainian since we got independence. He speaks it very badly."
"If you can speak it badly, it's a real language. As soon as they work out how I can speak Scots with an English accent and not get laughed at I'll learn it, yeah?" She licked her lips.
Irina sucked in her cheeks and looked down at her nail again. "In this morning's papers it says Spaskin is going to be fired from the government. There is a scandal about a contract." Some sharp sight yanked her eyes back towards the entrance of the hotel. She laughed and spoke in one of her Slavic tongues to the driver, who looked over sleepily. "Tommy's here."
Scroggan's grin was wide and silly, not fading, a prizewinner's grin slit through his curly beard. It seemed to Bramton that the man's eyes had grown. He was taking short excited strides in different directions on the pavement outside the hotel. He didn't know which way to move and was filled with a manic rubbery energy. The centre of his jagged motion was a woman a foot taller than he was, and 20 years younger. She stood still and followed him with her eyes. She had tight jeans on, spike-heeled boots and a tight white vest. Her wrists were covered by stacks of bangles. She had long nails the colour of blackcurrant juice, a tiny gold handbag and sheaves of kinked hair, stiff, streaked blonde and shiny with product.
Scroggan seized the handle of his suitcase, turned to the woman and tilted his grinning face up to hers. She lowered her head and kissed him on the mouth. Her hair moved with her head, a solid mass. Scroggan had opened the third button on his cerise shirt, the one just above his paunch. The chest hair matched his beard. Scroggan started off towards the minibus, tugging his suitcase, his head twitching. The grin was wider. After a few paces he stopped, let the case stand, turned back and strode jerkily to the woman. He raised his hands to her waist and the woman stooped to kiss him again. Their heads tilted and their mouths opened and locked. The woman had long, delicate forearms and calves and powerful hips and shoulders like a swimmer. Scroggan broke away and took the woman's hand and tried to pull her towards the minibus but the woman laughed and shook her head. Scroggan kept pulling, talking to her and grinning, and she kept shaking her head and laughing, until Scroggan let go. As the minibus pulled away he twisted in his seat to watch her until he was waving and blowing kisses out of the back window.
They moved quickly through the traffic, changing lanes carelessly. The driver tailgated the cars in front and sounded the horn until the way was cleared. The minibus rocked over a broad cobbled street scored through by tramlines. The sun made dazzling points on the wing mirrors of grubby Soviet cars. On the glassed-over balconies of apartment blocks, the arrival of spring had swung windows open, exposing the sediment of darkness inside.
Scroggan was beating a rhythm on his thighs and singing. Irina laughed and looked round. "You like Natasha Korolyeva?"
"Is it her, is it? Catchy number. They wouldny stop playing it in the restaurant last night. Thay lassies dinny stop."
"That's where you picked up your lady friend," said Bramton.
"You're no gonny bring me down." Scroggan was serene and his grin was as wide as before. He was fidgety and excited, almost quaking. "You want to. It's no in your nature to be glad to see a middle-aged man happy."
Bramton shifted in her seat. She was starting to sweat. The suit was too tight and the material didn't breathe. There had been slices of raw pork fat as starters at dinner and she would never be able to confess to anyone that she liked it. She asked Irina if the driver could open a window and said to Scroggan: "What are you going to claim her as? Laundry or drinks?"
The muscles of Scroggan's jaw bulged for an instant. "You're no gonny bring me down," he said. "Dinny even try because you're no gonny. I didny pay for sex with Katya. I've never paid for sex in my life. What you're looking at is a man who's fallen in love. No! Don't come at me with your nasty Anglo-Saxon feminist cynicism. Let me be happy."
"Katya!" Bramton shook her head and a wave of angry blood crested, broke and receded in her cheeks. "Why would a woman like that fall in love with you? She's half your age, half your weight, twice your height and she's got hair on her head, not on her face. I'm not stupid. I know the kind she is. The hotel was crawling with them."
"She's a friend of Spaskin's," said Scroggan. "He introduced us and we got on. That was after you went to bed."
"Eight hours ago. Quite a romance."
"First, she isny on the game. She's a scientist. She didny want money and it wasny offered. Second, she's a sweet, intelligent woman."
"She speaks English?"
"We understood each other in a different way. Third, I'm single and I'm over 21."
"You're over 41."
"Last, love is real. Last night it happened to me. Maybe one day it'll happen to you."
He wasn't grinning so hard. Bramton smiled.
Irina said to Scroggan: "Spaskin liked you."
"I was singing him Dick Gaughan and he was teaching me - what was that poet? Stivnechko?"
Irina giggled and the driver joined in. "Shevchenko."
Scroggan essayed a Ukrainian couplet and Irina finished it for him and clapped and told him now he was a Ukrainian.
"Your friends in Group wouldn't clap for me if I was reciting Burns," said Bramton.
"You need to work on your r's," said Scroggan malevolently.
The minibus speeded up and they passed on to one of the Dnepr bridges. The river lounged slack and heavy between the banks, like a strongman stretched out on the sofa, watching afternoon TV. Air rushed through the driver's window and a warm thrill spread through Bramton as the slipstream cooled her skin.
"Don't we have a rule about accepting gifts?" she said.
"I told you, you're no gonny bring me down," said Scroggan. "This one's for the long haul. Soon as I get back, I'm gonny get a visa sorted out for her."
"Spaskin's in trouble," said Bramton, smiling.
Irina said: "Spaskin's son got millions of dollars from a government contract Spaskin arranged. This is what the papers report."
Scroggan shook his head. His beard had closed up altogether now and his spasms had ceased. The old lines were back on his forehead and his eyes had shrunk to their usual size. "They'll always try to bring a patriot down. It's the oldest story in the book. The cynics'll always take out a man who loves his country."
"Perhaps you should get a visa sorted out for him," said Bramton. She grinned.
"Tell you what," said Scroggan, pointing his finger at her, "Come the day Scotland's free, it'll be first stop for political asylum. Oppressed, look no further. We'll take them all."
Bramton grinned and tapped her feet on the floor of the minibus. They headed fast through the tower blocks and cranes and vacant lots of the Left Bank. A woman in a headscarf and a younger woman with a pair of high-heeled shoes in her hand were picking their way over a berm of soil which had been bulldozed up between an unfinished apartment block and a bus stop.
"You said you were both from the same party?" said Irina.
"Too broad a kirk," muttered Scroggan.
"We never thought the Soviet Union would break up before Britain," said Bramton.
"Independence was a beautiful dream," said Irina. "But our parliament and our government have destroyed it."
"You need to give it more than six months," said Scroggan.
"Six generations," said Bramton.
Bramton's grin grew wider. They were leaving Kiev on the motorway through the forest. They were flying already. She heard her fridge and felt the firmness of her television chair. She pressed her hands between her knees, kicked her feet together and turned to Scroggan, hunched against the window, chewing his beard. "Come on," she said. "I can keep a secret. You gave that woman money, didn't you?"
Scroggan tipped his head back, breathed in and out and laughed. "You're no gonny bring me down," he said. "It's love. It's the kind of love you can never know."