It's a golden, half-beautiful morning when the radio wakes me up. It's more static than music by now; has been for weeks. I think that I've been meaning to replace it for months as I lie in bed listening to the local indie station with pretensions of rebellion.
Crawling out of the flophouse, I saw the mayor stealing my junk
I doth protest, citizen's arrest, now my body's in his trunk...
Crawling out of bed with a hangover, I can't quite bring myself to switch it off as I go through my morning routine. I'm meant to be meeting Paul for coffee, I realise with a groan. In the background the wacky morning DJ says democracy's a joke. Running late, I rush through a shower and, grabbing my keys, hurl myself out of the door. Crossing the street outside my building, I stumble over the kerb and nearly run straight into the black van that's been sitting there for the better part of a week. That guy should really move it or he'll get a ticket, I reflect.
Glasgow is not a city that's very conducive to hangovers, which might explain why there are so many alcoholics here. Better to be permanently soused than having to deal with all the noise with a hangover. They're putting in shops underneath my flat - at least, I think that's what they're doing - so there's non-stop drilling and hammering echoing up through the walls. Add to that the construction crew on Buchanan Street that's been working for a month without actually constructing anything, and the incessant pipers, and I'm tempted to go back for the hair of the dog that bit me. I press on to Royal Exchange Square nonetheless. Paul's waiting for me at a table outside one of the cafes. He has an iced coffee, a cigarette, and a ratty old RAF greatcoat that probably predates the war. The iced coffee may be his sole concession to this being the middle of July.
A word about Paul. Paul is mad. Mostly-harmless mad, to be fair to him, but mad all the same. He gets very paranoid sometimes. To his credit, he has that thing shrinks love so much - 'insight' - so he knows when he's doing it, but at the end of the day, if you seriously believe that rogue MI5 agents are following you around because you've stumbled upon their secret corruption, that's not a conviction that's going to be shaken by anything so flimsy as evidence. When he's not ensnared in webs of deceit and espionage, Paul is a sound engineer. That's actually how I met him; a musician friend was making an album a few months back, and we got to talking. He's a good friend, and a nice guy, when he isn't trying to conduct a conversation over a hair dryer so the spies can't hear. He gets up, and I'm reminded of just how tall he is; 6'1" and lanky, with long, greasy hair and a ragged beard. One part Biggles to one part Solzhenitsyn.
"Morning Paul. How many satellites are watching us today?" I can't help but smirk a bit, even if it is rather like kicking a hornet's nest.
"Don't be stupit. Why'd they need satellites? They've people everywhere," he says, by way of greeting, in a harsh, staccato sort of tone; like he's trying to get all the words out of his mouth at once, a little burst transmission of paranoia. He glares at the waitress, a tiny Latvian girl in an apron and Converses, with a shy smile and dark brown hair. She doesn't look like an international superspy. Then again, maybe that's just what they want me to think. I roll my eyes a little and get myself an espresso. I have the feeling I'm going to need it.
"Such as?" I ask. At the next table over, a man with an umbrella and hair greying at the temples ruffles his newspaper. The Financial Times, I recognise the pink paper. I didn't think anyone actually read it.
"How many cameras you think there are around here?"
I throw up my hands. "Oh, come off it, man. This isn't London." A little wave of nostalgia hits me at that. I left almost a year ago now, and the city's still laid out in my head like a Tube map, colour-coded in neat, clean lines. Now calling at cheating on your girlfriend. The next station will be losing your job. This train will terminate at exile to Scotland. Mind the gap. It's a well-known fact - and almost certainly untrue, like all well-known facts - that London has the greatest concentration of CCTV cameras in any city, worldwide. Everyone gets to be the star of their own little surveillance TV show. There's nothing like that here. Glasgow has a subway, but no-one spies on it. I figured that out the night I watched a drunk man try to climb up a down escalator at Argyle Street for the better part of half an hour. In London, the police would've bundled him along inside five minutes. If he was really lucky, they'd only have shot him a couple of times in the head for good measure.
"Doesn't need to be," Paul argues, scratching at his scraggly beard with one hand. "These fuckers get everywhere. Like," he leans in close and whispers, "see the fella behind you?" I sip my coffee and look over as subtly as I can. Oldish guy. Suit and an overcoat. Reading the Financial Times. Big deal.
"Yeah, what about him?" I answer quietly.
There's a malicious glint in Paul's eye. "What paper's he reading?"
"How the fuck should I know?"
"Look again," he says. I look round. The Financial Times. I look back at Paul, exasperated. "So what paper?" he asks again. And as the hairs begin to stand up on the back of my neck, I'm increasingly conscious that I don't know. I shift in my seat uncomfortably, and Paul smirks, conscious of his victory. I finish my coffee as quickly as I can stand to, practically slamming the tiny cup back down on the saucer. I make my excuses, to Paul and to myself. I'm tired. Didn't get much sleep. Bad hangover, that always fucks with your memory. It was hard to see with the light anyway. It's probably nothing. It's probably nothing.
Walking back home, I can hear the police helicopter hovering overhead. It's probably nothing. It's an Old Firm match day. It's got to be that. My keys don't fit in the door properly at first. It must be my hands shaking. I get it open and slam it behind me. Now listen, I tell myself. There's no reason for you to be as freaked out by this as you are. You're not a spy, or a terrorist, Michael. You're a music journalist. Whether or not I like CBMS' new album is not a matter of national security. I'm no threat to anyone apart from bad lyricists.
Eventually, I grab a beer out of the fridge and set down to do some writing. I'm not a spy, I keep repeating to myself. There's no reason for the government to be interested in me. And as I finish my second bottle, it strikes me.
There's no reason for anyone to be interested in me. I am not interesting enough to spy on. I wasn't even interesting to Fiona when she left me. I might've slept with her best friend, but that wasn't what did it, in the end. It was that I could do that, and still just... occupy the same space as her. Like furniture. I look around the flat. Just dead, barren walls. Nobody's listening. Nobody cares about me. I bite my lip and say it out loud, a little surveillance benediction. I slur my words a little bit, all the same. "I'm not interesting enough to spy on."
It's about a minute later that there's a knock at the door. By now I'm just drunk enough not to think about opening it, and silhouetted in the doorway is a middle-aged man in a suit with greying hair, an umbrella, and a copy of the Financial Times neatly folded under one arm. He doesn't say a word, just smiles at me. There's a younger man with him, standing off to the side. I hadn't even noticed him. He leans in very close to me and says,
"Don't worry. We'll always be interested in what you do."