For more than a week, Walter had been feeling a trifle Scottish. It didn’t help that his house was the colour of salmon. Nor that his wife was named Heather. He’d wanted a magnolia house and a wife named Patsy, but you can’t have everything. A primeval force was moving within him, an urge to plunge through moor, lake and glen.
Over breakfast, a meal of sheep’s stomach stuffed with lungs, he mentioned his condition. He wondered if turning into a Highlander would affect his career. He was, after all, paid to sell a chemical which removed ice-cream stains from trousers.
His wife glowered at him. Being a gentle soul, her glower was not hugely effective. If looks could kill, he’d be complaining of slight abdominal cramps and asking his pharmacist for aspirin. Fortunately, he felt sick enough already.
“You’ll have to adjust,” she told him. “My brother, Desmond, had a dose of Burma. Took to wearing rubies in his nose and making fish-bone curry. But he kept his job in the Civil Service. And cousin Joseph was a train spotter who became an Eskimo. Never needed to change his anorak, just noted down kayaks instead.”
Rather than feeling reassured, Walter finished his food in anxious silence, wiped his knife on his beard and stuffed it into his sock. He wanted to hold forth on bridges and pneumatic tyres. But his wife hated lofty or inflated topics. So he dressed for work, shook the last drops from the bottle of woad and mounted his bicycle.
Around him, men and women were changing, shells of identity falling off and rattling on the pavement. Walter blinked. It seemed to him that whenever an identity clattered to the ground, a horde of imps rushed out of shop doorways and storm drains and lifted it up. Then they fitted it onto the shoulders of some other pedestrian. They moved so fast, it was difficult to register their presence at all.
Walter felt he ought to investigate this phenomenon more closely, but at that moment he passed the bus station. Lately, the bus station had exerted a strange fascination for him. He spent the next hour or so hanging around the ticket office, threatening commuters and demanding the fare back to Glasgow.
When he reached work, his boss was waiting for him. Mr Jhabvala was a yogi and astrologer who had invented Caste Away, the ultimate frozen dessert stain eradicator, in Bombay. His prototype was so successful that jealous rivals had pursued him all over the subcontinent. Years in the Kashmiri mountains had taken their toll. His skin was pitted with cobra bites and his eyes glittered like opals.
He invited Walter to sit down, leant back in his swivel chair and stroked his chin. A run-in with brigands had left him with only three fingers on his left hand. The missing digits on his right hand, however, were testimony to frostbite in the Hindu Kush.
“Listen, old boy,” he began, toying with his cravat, “I’ve paid a lot of thought to this and I’ve decided to let you go. Awfully sorry, but you know how it is. Be a good chap and don’t cry. Stiff upper lip and all that. Thing is, old bean, we can’t allow a Scotsman to peddle our goods. Customers would take fright. Kindly accept this Cheddar as a parting gift and run along. Toodle pip.”
Sighing languidly, Mr Jhabvala pasted his kiss-curl back onto his brow and inserted a cigarette into a long holder. Walter ignored the gift and stomped out, cursing into his beard. On the street, he caught his new reflection in a tailor’s window. His Scottishness was growing worse by the minute. The claymore in his belt interfered with the back wheel of his bicycle, the tam-o’-shanter keep slipping over his eyes. He’d have to visit his doctor.
Dr Walnut was a family practitioner. He greeted Walter cordially, offering him a hookah and rolling out a carpet for his benefit. Walter felt uncomfortable in the surgery, possibly because he’d never seen Dr Walnut in a fez before. Foregoing the hashish, he outlined his problem. Dr Walnut nodded, poured himself a glass of raki and clapped his hands. The receptionist, Miss White, came in and undulated her bare midriff on the desk between them.
“A little thin, no?” he chuckled, exhaling noxious fumes through flared nostrils. Noticing Walter’s scowl, he held up his hands in a mollifying gesture. “You can’t get the staff these days. Now what can I do for you? You are turning Scottish? Well there’s a bug about. Rampant Internationalism. It’s the rains we’ve been having.”
Walter nodded. Dr Walnut stood up and moved to a filing cabinet in the corner of his surgery. He opened the drawers and a scruffy child popped out of each. In their features, they were miniature replicas of Dr Walnut. They leapt to the floor and began riding hobbyhorses in tight circles on the gaudy central rug. Walter caught the flash of silk, the creak of leather, the acrid odour of mare’s milk.
“My sons succumbed last week. Mongolianism, a severe outbreak. All my silver scalpels have been looted. Keep erecting tents in the kitchen. What can one do?” He inhaled deeply on his hookah and his eyes sparkled. “The little heathens! They’re absolutely furious, no?” One at a time, he lifted them and deposited them back into the filing cabinet, forcing the drawers shut with the toe of his curly slipper.
Walter wasn’t interested in other people’s children. He paced the room in dismay, his sporran swinging. “That’s all very well. But what can ye do for me?” He scratched at the lice in his plaid. Dr Walnut gave a mysterious smirk and reached into the folds of his robes. He removed a murky phial and held it up.
“It is most fortunate you came to see me at this time. I have just finished distilling this liquid from my sons. It is poison to the imps who cause the ailment. I call it Tartar Source.” He winked slyly. “It is expensive, but for you there is special price.”
“Och, give it here!” Walter snatched the bottle and swallowed the contents. For a moment he reeled and clutched at his head. Then he made his way gingerly out of the surgery. Dr Walnut followed, calling him the offspring of a dog and various unnatural partners. He brushed past Miss White, who had returned to Reception and was sugaring her body, and fell down the steps onto the street.
Over the next fortnight, a second transformation took place. Walter was at a complete loss to explain this one. He found his head was still eager to cycle everywhere but his abdomen wanted a bus. His arms had an urge to paddle a coracle. Most disconcertingly, his toes began to smell of fish and his neck of sausage. When he woke one morning to find that Heather had drawn isobars over his body with a felt tip pen, he guessed he’d also have to swallow his pride.
Dr Walnut was very forgiving. He studied Walter carefully, tapped parts of his attire with a tiny hammer and grunted. “The cure was only partially successful. Your head seems to have remained Scottish while the rest of you has altered. You have become a walking analogue of the British Isles. Your body is England, your arms are Wales and your legs reach all the way down to Cornwall.”
“That explains it!” cried Walter. “Yesterday, I was passing a cake shop and my feet were attracted by the cream. They went one way, my body went another and I slipped and landed on my Kent. But if I’m the mainland, where does Ireland fit in?” He saw the answer in Dr Walnut’s pout. “My wife! What do you mean! Oppressed?”
Dr Walnut shook his head. “No, no. Green and gently rolling.” He took Walter’s pulse. “Any pain in your Lancashire?” Walter had to admit there wasn’t. His Cleveland itched and his Herefordshire rumbled, but these were minor concerns. Something of much more fundamental importance had just occurred to him.
“What will happen if the Union dissolves? I’ve heard that Scotland stands a good chance of winning independence. If that happens will my head fall off?” he demanded.
“I think I know what your problem is,” Dr Walnut replied. “You’re a character in a short story. Some amateur hack is writing this down even as we speak. At the end, to entertain the reader, he’ll make the Union dissolve and your head will indeed fall off.”
“Isn’t there anything I can do?” Walter was in tears.
“If the reader doesn’t reach the end, you’ll be okay. You’d better try to be boring from now on, in the hope they won’t go any further. If you try really hard, they might throw the short story away in disgust and do something else.”
It was suddenly very clear to Walter. His fate lay in the hands of some non-accountable reader. But what was the best way of being boring? He thought about it. Whatever happened, the reader mustn’t be allowed to reach the end of the story. He thought about it some more. He appealed to the reader to stop at this point.
His head fell off.