Till Houletgless an the Soond o Money
Efter a few weeks, it wis mair fae needcessity than want that Till steyed on at the hostel in St Andrews. The hostler an Houletgless baith kent that Till had lang syne burnt aw his brigs in the burgh, an wi naewhaur ense tae gan, the reackoning o his daily rates wis gawin up an up an up. Ilka mornin Till sat an oor in the chynge-hoose howff, puzzlin ower the crafty computatiouns – but the hostler wis tae gleg a man even for Till, an ayeweys hid an answer for iverythin.
“Fower pence,” Till said ane mornin, pointin at the bill, “Whit’s that fur, then?”
“Chyngin yer sheets, sir.”
“Aw aye. An this twapenny?”
“Polishin yer boots, sir.”
“An worth it at hauf the price – gin ah iver set fit oot the door. Weel, ah’ll bet ye at least whitiver ah’m gettin for this haufpenny here’s a rale bargain.”
“Aye sir. Yon’s a surcharge on a room wi a windae.”
“Man!” Till crumpled up the reackonin an threw it awa. “When ah wis sleepin oot in Glesga Green, ah’d a room that wis windaes tap tae bottom, an it niver set me back a penny. But ah dout yon’s the cost o freendly service, eh.”
The hostler coughed discreetlie an murmelt tae hissel. He didna awfy much enjoy the backchat, but he had Till weel an truelins ower a baurel, an the baith o thaim kent it.
Nou, it wisnae really that the hostler wis a parteecularlie meeserable man, tho he wis kent tae like a bargain. It wis mair that he’d had twinty-odd years o giein it “yes sir, no sir” tae ivery chancer that scleusht in the door wi a tippenny, an he couldnae help but mak the maist o onybody whase situation wis waur than his. He’d made a fair wee practice oot o shoutin at scullery maids, cloutin the eerant-louns, an kickin the hostel cat – but he’d niver got awa wi treatin a guest yon wey, an the variorum o it had yet tae weir aff.
Till wisnae the kind tae fly aff the haunle at the least bit wee thing. He widna swallae ony insults, but maist ither ongauns he’d pit up wi as lang as he could, raither than be thocht o as petty. The hostler kent this, an kent tae that he wid be able tae git awa wi murder whaur Till wis concernt, lang as he did everythin wi a smile. Weel, that was nae grand hairdship, tae mak shuir that when he bummelt intae Houletgless’s room at the crack o dawn, or served him up a hauf-meisur in a pint-stowp, that he did sae wi a muckle big smeu on his face. Fact, tae tell ye the truith, it wis aw he could dae no tae burst intae sang.
He parteecularlie likit tae keep Till waitin. Even the smawest request wid hae him dustin his coonter an polishin his glesses for an oor an a hauf aforehaun. Ane mornin, efter Till had been sittin there forty-five meenits, the hostler finally decidit tae tak him ower his brakfast. Bi then, it wis gealin an hauf cauld. Till shot him a glence.
“Forty-five meenits! Wir ye awa sawn the oats yersel?”
“Ye’re no the anely guest, Mister Houletgless,” the hostler said, “Nou, is that aw?”
“Weel, sin ye mention it,” Till said, takkin up the last day’s reackonin, “It says on here that it’s tippenny for deener. Syne when?”
“Syne the cost went up,” the hostler said, “Ah ween ye’d hae me sellin at a loss?”
“Och, man. Ah’ve haurd it aw, but dinnae kid a kidder! At a loss, he says! Hallion like yersel, ye could be peyin yer guests tae stey an still wind up aheid.”
The een abuin the hostler’s smile wir fou aw wraith, but his voice wis steidy.
“Weel, ah’m sorry ye feel that wey, Mister Houletgless. Gin ye think ye could manage better somewhaur ense, ah widna stint ye.”
“Aye, an mebbe ah will. But we can stairt wi takkin ma deeners aff yer bills. Ah micht hiv tae sleep in this cowp – or try tae, onyroads – but fae nou on, ah’ll dae ma eatin somewhaur ense.”
The hostler wis gey attersome at this, but he couldnae see ony answer tae it, so he nodded an seethed his wey back intae the kitchen.
That evenin, when the hostler wis makin deener, he cam intae the loonge an fund Till sittin there. His een war shut, an he wis takkin in the scent o the moistenin beef wi deep sichs o pleisur. The hostler smirlt, then lat his face gan haurd.
“Chynged yer mynd hiv ye, Mister Houletgless? Weel, ah’m sorry tae disappynt ye, but ah’m feart we’ve no eneuch beef tae gan roon.”
Houletgless’s een flichtert up, an he leukt at the hostler wi somethin kin tae surprise.
“Eh? Ah thocht we’d been ower aw this. Juist the smell o it’s eneuch for me. An onywey,” Till soucht, closin up his een, “It’s no an awfy lot less than ah got for my tippenny.”
The hostler went brattlin back tae his kitchen, howpin michtilie that Till wad chynge his mynd – but when the fare wis ready an the plates war gawin oot, Till wis still sittin there contentit in the corner, takkin in the smell an chewin awa wi gusto on a roll o soggy breid.
The hostler had aye been faur swither in servin Till his reackonin than his brakfast; but the neist morning, Till noticed that the man wis in an awfy hurry tae get awa as weel. Jalousin some mischief he shoutit him back, an scanct ower the tally wi a waukrif ee.
“Hoi!” he said, “Whit’s this business wi a penny for ma deener? Ye ken yersel ah niver took a bite.”
“Naw, mebbes no,” the hostler said, wipin his hauns on his apron, “But when ye sit yersel doun at mealtith, it’s no juist the fare ye’re peying for. A plain loaf in a tavern costs mair as a plain loaf on the street. Ye mebbe didnae eat, but ye had aw the ither benefits. Ony ither hostel in the toun – an ye’re walcome tae try thaim – wad tell ye the same.”
Till listent tae this in mazerment.
“Richt,” he said, “So, let me git ma heid roon this. Whit ye’re sayin is, ye’re chairgin me for the smell o food. That aboot the size o it?”
The hostler shrugged.
“The smell o guid food, an ye wir lucky tae hiv it.”
Till got up fae his seat an reeshelt throu his pooches. Finally, he pullt oot a big broun penny, an he chucked it ontae the table. It wis that heavy it rattled aroon for a meenit as it settelt, fillin the tavern wi a lang law rummle.
“Hear that?” Till asked the hostler, wha’d yet tae lift his een fae the muckle coin. The man nodded as he raxed oot his haun tae sneck up the bawbee. But afore his fingers could close aroond it, the penny was somehou up an dancin its wey ower Houletgless’s knuckles. For a meenit it birlt there on the back o his haun, afore vainishin intae his pooch wi a wechtie chink.
“Ye’re chairgin me for the smell o food,” Till said, “An ah’m peyin ye wi the soond o money.”
An tae the jinglin accompaniment o a new-fillt purse, Till Houletgless walked oot intae the street.
Thomas Clark is a writer and poet based in the Scottish Borders. He is co-editor of Scots at Bella Caledonia, and a regular columnist for The National. He is also poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC. His first poetry collection, Intae the Snaw, was published by Gatehouse in 2015. Twitter: @clashcityclarky