“Why should I?” George asked. “We’ve never laid eyes on each other or even exchanged a letter.”
“You don’t have any feeling for your family history,” his father grumbled.
“You should have told me my forefathers were thieves and murderers sent to Australia as prisoners. That might have made me more interested.”
“It’s because you have an English grandfather that you could get a work permit here, don’t forget that.”
A look from George to Ada telegraphed, “Say something, mother.” She answered his plea, though not with the most helpful remark. “I hope I get a chance to see you in your kilt, George.”
His father shook his head, disapproving. “A kilt! Ridiculous.”
“I only wear it to my Scottish dance group.” George couldn’t help adding, “Though who knows, I might wear it to my wedding.”
George saw his father pause, as if tangled on the mental thorn of whom George could conceivably marry.
The waiter put in an appearance at that moment. “Can I get you anything else?” he asked. No, thank you, said all three. “Where are you from? New Zealand?” Australia, Ron said. “If I can’t tell which one someone is from,” the waiter smiled, “I always say New Zealand. Aussies don’t mind my getting it wrong, but Kiwis do. What part of Australia?”
“We’re from Perth,” Ada said.
“We have a Perth in Scotland, too, as you probably know. Not as large as yours, but it is the original.”
Ron’s eyes shifted away, some memory seeming to pluck at him. “The Fair Maid of Perth,” he murmured. His gaze fell on George, and he grew silent.
“I hope you enjoy your stay,” the waiter said before walking off.
“The people here are so friendly,” Ada enthused. “Very chatty. The English are like that, but the Scots are even more so. And I just love their accent. Do you think you’ll pick it up, George?”
“If I do, you have my permission to give me a kick in the rear.” He turned to his father. “You see, Dad, I don’t always tell you not to criticize me. Sometimes I encourage it.”
Fortified by their toasties, the three left the shop and continued their descent of the Royal Mile. George: a taut, fat-free body, with a long thin neck his mother said he inherited from her father. Ada: short and rather dumpy, wearing black slacks and a top of a hard shade of pink. Ron: developing a stoop as he strayed further into his fifties that distressed George a little.
Ron was a volcano that was not yet quite extinct. He rumbled on, now about how ministers in the new Scottish parliament could vote on matters that only involved the Scots, and then, sitting in Westminster, on matters that affected the English as well.
“Dad, it doesn’t work that way. There are Scottish MPs who only sit in the Scottish Parliament. . . .”
George explained, corrected, wondering why he was always having to do this with his father.
Several times on his way home after leaving his parents at their hotel, George took in a deep breath and let it out again.Today had been only the first day of his parents’ visit. Tomorrow there was another one to get through, and a half-day after that, before they took a train to London and were safely back in dear old England, away from the weird, barbaric Scots.
As he walked, George could see Salisbury Crags off to his left, the long outcropping of red rock stretching south from Holyrood. In contrast with the genteel architecture at their feet, the Crags were raw and savage, like a chapter of The Lost World inserted into the middle of The Vicar of Wakefield. Little figures moved along the top edge. One almost always saw figures there, even on a gray day like this. In George’s fancy, they were hunters and gatherers, some disjunctive trick of time making one see the Crags as they were five thousand years ago. A fantastical city.
George reached the children’s playground near his flat on Marchmont Road. The sky had been shrouded in clouds most of this September day, dispensing occasional showers. At this moment, shortly before the sun set, the clouds opened up, releasing a flood of light. As so often in this part of the world, mischievous nature said, “I know this is what you wanted all day, but I’m only giving it to you now, when it’s too late. Too late for a picnic, a long bike ride.” The sunlight and warmth encouraged George to linger on a bench for a few minutes.
Idly, George watched a little girl and a little boy taking turns coming down a slide. They were three or four, both blond, both wearing trousers, the girl with a red hat, the boy with a camouflage one. Really, George thought, there wasn’t all that much to tell an observer, this is a girl, this a boy. At that age, their bodies were very similar, and that the girl’s hair was longer was only a parental choice. To his right, George saw the croquet lawn where an elderly man and woman played. They both had white hair, the woman’s longer. Age had brought them closer to each other in appearance, making the woman look mannish, her breasts withering, the man like an old woman, losing any muscularity he might have had. They, too, wore clothes that were hardly distinguishable. It was only in the intervening years that differences between the genders were so sharp, and even then – well, look at this robust young woman striding by in jeans and a motorcycle jacket.
Before the clouds had parted, the big trees facing George at one end of the park had looked pretty enough, but unremarkable, their leaves in the weak light ranging over only a narrow spectrum of dusky greens. Once infused with sunlight, they were eye-catching, full of contrasts, lit leaves, unlit leaves, leaf and branch shadows forming intricate mosaics.
George spread his fingers in the sunlight. He imagined he could feel it course through his veins as it did through the lime and sycamore leaves. He looked approvingly at his skin, browned by many hours of work at Craigmillar Community Gardens, coarser than it once was.
Closing his eyes, a series of photographs appeared in his mind, images he’d taken of himself over a period of two years using a tripod and timer. His upper body looked more and more convincingly male as the scars healed and working out improved his muscle tone. “What did you do with them?” he’d asked the nurse after the surgery. He meant, what did you do with the tissue the doctor removed; what did you do with my breasts? Her answer was brief and matter-of-fact. “They were incinerated.” A detail he always remembered with amazement, that his breasts had been first scooped out, then burned.They went up in smoke, he would think, like in a magic act, though it was a magic that had cost a fair amount of money and put him through a good deal of pain.
As in a benign version of the werewolf myth, the photographs showed hair appear on his face and chest, the result of injections with testosterone. He’d learned somewhere in his endless reading that this testosterone came from ostriches. More stuff out of a fairy tale, a potion concocted from ostriches. The princess was transformed into a prince, the Fair Maid of Perth he’d been until twenty- two into the Fair Lad at twenty-five. His mind raced over a series of firsts. The first time he used a men’s room; the first time a man took him for another man; the first time a woman did, and the first time one flirted with him; the first time he introduced himself with his new male name. Studying the pictures recently, he’d noticed something else: that he looked progressively a little happier in each one.
“I believe you believe it.” That was the best his mother could do, to believe that he believed he’d been born thinking of himself as a man though his body was that of a woman, that it was only fitting Margaret should be alchemized into George. After having three boys, his parents had thought it advisable to have a boy’s name ready for their fourth child, and this was the name he’d taken. Something in the genetic chemistry between her and his father, he’d told his mother half-seriously, made them turn out boys, except the process had gone a little wrong this last time. You’ve lost a daughter and gained a son, he said, a fourth son.
As for his father, George couldn’t joke with him about the subject. They could barely speak of it at all. “You can’t expect me ever to accept it,” Ron had declared once. “That my Margaret should become –” There the conversation ended, for he couldn’t even bring himself to utter the dreaded new name: George.
George’s strategy during his parents’ visit was to keep them busy. Thankfully, Edinburgh was the easiest imaginable city for visitors to explore. In geologic terms, they could start atop the crag, the old volcano, and proceed down the tail, the sloping ramp that a retreating glacier, scraping away the softer material surrounding the volcano, had left on one side. In historic terms, this meant starting at Edinburgh Castle and heading straight down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace. George pictured himself standing on the Castle Esplanade and popping his father inside one barrel and his mother inside another. He gave the barrels a push and let them roll all the way down the hill, past tenements and churches and closes, past the statue of David Hume in a toga, past John Knox House, which Knox had almost certainly never lived in. They’d already gotten more than halfway down the Royal Mile yesterday, however, and George was running out of sights to show them.
Ron was even grumpier on the second day of his visit, making George imagine his barrel lined with spikes. No, that was unfair; unfair to suppose his father was being cruel to him and should be punished. He presented Ron with a difficult situation, he couldn’t deny that. One he was unlikely to have received instruction in from any book he might have read about how to be a good father.
With the narrow sidewalks and many other pedestrians making it difficult for the three of them to walk together, George and his mother often went ahead. Ron would trail behind, hands stuffed in the pockets of his khaki pants.
“You will take us to see your garden,” Ada said in one of their stretches together.
“Of course.” George made calculations for tomorrow.
A few hours to see the New Town, an hour at the National Gallery, an hour at Craigmillar Gardens. He considered ways to get his parents to this last destination that would minimize the shock of Craigmillar, a district of dreary council housing and dodgy characters far from the city center. Best to take a cab and keep them distracted with a steady flow of talk. He wanted his parents to like Edinburgh and feel he’d made a good choice in settling there.
“How’s your back, dear?” his mother asked.
“Better today, thanks.”
“You shouldn’t have pulled out that stump on your own. You should have asked someone to help you. After all, the whole idea of a community garden must be that people work on it together.”
“I just wasn’t thinking,” George said. “I hope you don’t do things like that to prove something.”
Ada paused before an array of woolen goods in a store window. “I still need to find a birthday present for Daniel.”
“He hasn’t given you any hints?” George asked as they moved inside the store.
His mother held up a scarf in one hand and a cap in the other. “The Quiet One? Not likely.”
Ron wouldn’t follow them inside. Instead, he stood on the sidewalk looking around with a cross expression. This discouraged them from lingering, and Ada didn’t buy anything.
Daniel was one of George’s three brothers. All the siblings had nicknames, as if to help distinguish them from each other, since they were close in age. George couldn’t help having some fondness for the names, though as an adult, he realized they acted as a constraint. Once you became known in your family as the Quiet One, what chance did you have of breaking out of that role? He himself had had several nicknames, all coming from his father.
His father had been generous toward him with names when he was growing up. Nowadays he never addressed him by any name. George listened, he waited, but a name never came. A name was a strange thing. Curious the slight disconcertion when a new acquaintance got it wrong, said John instead of George. The mistake made him feel the person didn’t in fact know who he was, though possibly remembering everything else he’d said about himself. George himself was careful about names. At Craigmillar Gardens, after meeting a group of senior citizens or people with disabilities who had come to do some work there, he would jot down their names on a scrap of paper and go over them later. He was sure people appreciated that he remembered their names and used them.
“Look, an old pharmacy.” In a rare moment of taking an interest, Ron stopped before a shop with a gold-painted mortar and pestle above the door. The Australian pharmacist stepped inside, George and Ada following.
After a quick survey of the items on offer, the aspirin and cough drops and toothpaste, Ron concluded, half to himself, “All pretty much the same.” The same as in his own pharmacy in far-off Perth, except that his merchandise wasn’t displayed on old-fashioned wooden shelves. “Every place in the world is becoming more alike,” he mused under his breath, “from Bangkok to Berlin.”
Then to George in a low voice, “You are careful about your – medications.” He clearly didn’t know what word to use, one that wouldn’t attract the attention of the staff or other customers. “I did some research. There are several contraindications.”
George was about to say, “Yes, I know,” then stopped himself, realizing this wasn’t the most important point. “Thanks, Dad,” he said. “It’s nice of you to be concerned.”
His father gave a half-smile, nodded. George wished he would say more, that this might be the sort of cracking open of the subject he always hoped for. He tried to think of some question to ask about his drugs. “Is it just a myth about the testosterone coming from ostriches?” He couldn’t come up with one that seemed sufficiently matter-of-fact. His father, for his part, lapsed back into grouchiness.
“Look, another cafe selling ye olde toasties,” he said, his eyes on a placard. “Typical of the Scots to try to doll up what’s actually nothing but a goddamned toasted cheese sandwich.”
Finally, the last day of his parents’ visit arrived, the half day before they caught a train in the afternoon. On the way to the station, George let them move forward into the tram, struggling with their luggage, while he paid the fares. Like most people who didn’t travel much, his parents hadn’t packed lightly. In addition to the two big suitcases, they both had medium-sized backpacks, which they were forced to slough off in the crowded tram.
George had to squeeze around other passengers to get to his parents. Ron was bending over, trying to place his backpack on the floor behind his suitcase. His jacket, unzipped, had fallen open. Quick as lightning, a lean fortyish man saw his chance. He snatched the pouch visible in the jacket’s inner pocket and popped out of the back door as the bell sounded to warn it was closing.
Later, it surprised George that, quickly as the man acted, he acted just as fast, like they were a team, an acrobatic act, closely attuned. He was out of the back door right after the man, just before it shut. On the platform, he grabbed the man’s arm and snatched back the pouch. There his success ended, the man jerking his arm free and racing away through the crowds on Princes Street, a scowl on his face as if George had just done him an injury.
From inside the tram, George heard people crying to the driver to stop, his parents presumably among them. The tram, after moving a few feet forward, jerked to a halt. The front door opened again, and George could get back on and rejoin his parents.
“George, are you all right?” his mother exclaimed, putting her hands on his arms. She was crying, though only a little, for the incident was over so fast, it hadn’t completely sunk in for any of them.
“I’m fine,” he said. He handed the pouch to his father.
“You should take better care of this,” he said, smiling.
“I will, I will.” His father was gasping as if he’d been the one to chase after the thief. “It would have been terrible to lose this, especially right when we were heading for the station. Our passports are in here and a lot of our money.”
He looked inside the pouch, checking that everything was accounted for. “Thank you, George. Quick thinking on your part, very quick thinking.”
“Thinking and acting,” his mother put in.
The three went on chattering excitedly about the incident, with some of the people standing near them taking part. Apparently it was only George who remarked one particular detail. His father had used his name. His father had called him George.
“In the Name of the Son” by Gary Pedler appeared in Issue 39 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Gary Pedler has written two adult novels, a YA novel, two story collections, and, a little to his surprise, a play. A resident of San Francisco for longer than he cares to admit, Gary qualifies as a true Bay Area denizen. Yet after his escape from his white-collar wage slave job, he’s spent much of his time rambling around the world and, of course, writing about everything he sees. His travel memoir Couchsurfing: the Musical is published by Adelaide Books. You can find out more about Gary at http://www.garypedler.com.