Frank Muir was an English comedy writer who, along with fellow comic writer Denis Norden, created the series Take It From Here, a series starring Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley. He created a number of other shows throughout the 60s like That Was The Week That Was and The Frost Report. Muir served as Rector of the University of St Andrews from 1976 to 1979 and, at the end of his term, made a gift of £1000 to the University, “to be endowed as an award given to the student who wrote and submitted the best piece of original, humorous writing.”
Margaret is talking about a corned beef sandwich. I’ve heard the story before of course, but she has a lovely way of describing food, especially cooked meats. We’d spent an hour by the beach, a nice spot out of the wind, and had just decided to move on to Morrison’s when I spot him.
‘Don’t look now but Gareth’s back. I said don’t look, Margaret. We can’t be encouraging him. What is he doing over there? Oh, no. Oh, Gareth, not inside the bin, please.’
Margaret, as per her usual self, halloos loudly, and next thing Gareth saunters over.
‘Well, well. My favourite burds.’
‘I thought you were in Glasgow, Gareth. You’re too early you know. The students aren’t back for weeks,' I say.
‘Ah know that, but it’s been a mad year.’
I notice that Margaret hasn’t finished her custard cream, so I shift a bit to conceal it. Appetite like a gannet has Gareth. And appalling manners.
‘You lassies are looking lovely. Stunnin’ if Ah might say so,’ he smarms.
‘No, you may not. And I can’t say you look particularly stunning, Gareth. In fact you have a bit of…something hanging from your…no, just there. It’s on your tail feathers for Heaven’s sake!’
Always the soft touch, Margaret hops over to help, pecking at the dangling cigarette butt. She even gives him a little preen while she’s at it.
Gareth decides that he may as well pop along to Morrison’s with us. I could have swung for Margaret when she mentioned it.
The queue has built nicely and a few tasty bits and pieces have been dropped. Gareth zeroes in on half a sausage roll, swooping under a shopping trolley with no fear whatsoever. Always a sign of stupidity in my book. Margaret and I share a few cheese and chive Pringles, and settle on top of a delivery van to keep our eyes open.
‘How’s the brood then, Bunty?’ Gareth asks through a beak full of pastry.
‘Well, my eldest has done us proud. Gone up to Fraserburgh to follow the fishing boats.’ Our Kenneth - first gull in the family to actually go to sea. I’m bursting to tell the whole story but Margaret spots two kiddies fighting over a family-sized Kit-Kat and Gareth’s off like a shot.
Turns out, things in Glasgow have been just as quiet as St Andrews. Gareth and his ‘Mrs’ (one of many, I shouldn’t wonder) had to work extra hard just to feed three chicks. They’ve a roof nest in some new build office, apparently. Bob and I stick to the cliffs, you can’t beat traditional.
‘Ah’m tellin’ yous - somethin’ weird happened. There’s no a kebab to be found. In Glasgow! No kebabs, no workies lunches, no sausage suppers after the pub. Weird.’
‘It’s been exactly the same here,’ I put in quickly as Margaret starts getting nostalgic about the tasty morsels hidden in the bottom of chip papers. ‘It isn’t boasting to admit that I’m well regarded for my cone snatching skills. But this year - not a single piece of frozen confectionary to be found on the East Coast,’ I say. ‘And with the students vanishing so early, Bob and I decided not to bother with eggs this year. I miss the chicks, of course, but…’
‘Ah bet your Bob’s missin’ more than chicks,’ Gareth laughs. Oh, he can be so crude that bird. And Margaret, squawking away, not much better.
We tell him that the old chap with the bag of crusts has disappeared too. Margaret has always maintained he’s just a kind old gent, but it would take a special type of kindness to feed pigeons. I’ve long thought he’s something to do with the university, an experiment in bird feeding skills or some such thing. I expect they have an entire department dedicated to seagulls. But where the old man has gone just seems part of a bigger mystery. When Margaret suggests asking the pigeons, well, even Gareth looks uncomfortable.
‘Please, Margaret, have some pride. That lot don’t even know what day of the week it is. Besides, whatever’s going on will be over soon, when the students come back.’
I’ll say one thing for Gareth – he’s a sharer. A couple of weeks later, Margaret and I follow a family car complete with promising picnic basket. They drive to the caravan park but they’ve only come to walk around. The basket disappointingly holds a dog. It’s one of those fancy little mutts, which would probably make quite a nice picnic if grilled properly.
Well, our spirits took a dip, I can tell you, especially seeing the caravans lying as empty as our stomachs. It’s a pleasant day, little bit of sunshine, hardly any wind – there should be outdoor lunches, overflowing bins, children with cones. Made me feel quite tearful if I’m honest.
But then we hear Gareth calling. Lord knows how, but he’s managed to open one of those hanging feeder things. The caravanners put them outside for squirrels and other nonsense. Gareth is pecking away at a mangle of wire and plastic, telling us to ‘dig in’. Normally, I would’ve passed as seeds and nuts bung up my digestion something awful. But these days, well, no one can be choosy.
Margaret tells him how much he’s brightened our day.
‘Let’s brighten it a bit more. Bombs away, lassies!’ he says, and flies over the family car. He does his business right down the windscreen, a veritable tsunami, and even I have to laugh. But this, this abandonment. What if the students don’t return? What then? I think about Bob and our empty nest.
It’s a glimpse of a lad carrying pillows that confirms it. The students are coming back to St Andrews!
Not a moment too soon either, not after, after…oh, last weekend was the final straw. There had been a lot of garden barbeque activity and I was perched hopefully on a fence at one of those nice houses near the golf course. I spotted what I took to be a dropped sausage, and given the location I thought it might be organic (you can’t beat organic for taste). When there was a lull for more wine, I swooped and snatched. Only, it wasn’t a sausage, it was, it was a slug. And heaven help me, I ate it anyway. Too ashamed to even tell my Bob.
But now Margaret, Gareth and I are patiently waiting for the first Domino's delivery as we watch the arrival of parents’ cars. We’ve noticed some tourists returning too, with the new outdoor cafés proving a big hit with our little team. Same for the beer gardens popping up everywhere, lager soaked nachos are positively delightful. A little bit of confusion over these masks everyone has taken to, until Margaret remembers some students wearing them way back and suggests a fashion trend. I dare say, but it’s unusual for student fashion to catch on. I’ve always marked them as a bit odd in that department especially around the feet.
Margaret and Gareth have become very chummy, with the Glasgow Mrs completely forgotten (although knowing Margaret, she just doesn’t care). They’ve been browsing nesting sites at St Mary’s and good luck to them I say. Bob and I are planning a visit to Fraserburgh, a few months of student food will build us up nicely for the flight. Imagine, our little Kenny, a fish eater.
Oh, it’s all so heartening. Fairy lights, wellingtons and tasteful throws arriving to the din of trolley suitcases on cobbles. Gareth has been listing the things he’s missed, making me quite hungry with talk of cheesy Wotsits. We disagree about whether the best leftovers are to be found at Fresher’s Week or Raisin Day, but we’re amicable enough. I’ve even promised to give noodles a go (it’s the worm-ness I can’t abide) and Gareth says he’ll try a beach party this year. Being a city gull, he can’t be doing with early starts but the morning-after debris is worth a little effort in my book.
And Margaret? Margaret is telling her story of the Great Mr Kipling Bonanza at Whitehorn. I’ve heard it before of course, but she has a lovely way of describing food, especially French Fancies.
Illustration: Sarah Knight