14 July 2012
Many years ago I used to hang out in a wee Italian Café in Shettleston where I was born.
It’s a small place Shettleston; it’s the kinda place where if the full moon gets reflected in the local pond, people threw in dead cats to see if they will be resurrected in its magical waters. I am exaggerating, it’s not that mental. But the locals were ‘special’ in some ways.
This café I want to tell you about was a small affair and was owned by an Italian family called the Matteo’s.
There were two middle aged sisters, one called Anna and the other called Ella.
Anna wore a tall white pompadour curly wig which sat tall on her head like one of those profiterole towers often fashionable at cheap weddings.
Ella wore a tall dark one in much the same unusual style. Both were pencil thin and wore heavy black eye make up and big dark beauty spot stabbed on their top lip. Both in skin tight leopard skin clothing.
I adored both these sultry sexy women, like a duo of Glasgow Sophia Loren’s, they brightened up my wee world.
Across from the cafe was the local steamie wash house, most of the women went there with lank hair, tired faces and clumping in big flat shoes like Cornish pasties, so Ella and Anna were somehow exotic in comparison, with their clicky kitten heels and coquettish wiggle and smell of chip fat and pizza’s wafting off them.
I knew Ella more than Anna; as she ran the café with her side kick Terry the Poof and the ever present wee yappy dog, a tiny ginger tufty miniature lion.
Terry the Poof, was the first openly gay man I ever knew.
In Glasgow you are usually named after your character, for instance there was also a man called ‘Bobby the Kiddie Fiddler’ because he was a paedophile and a bloke called Tommy the Elephant because he had big ears…you get what I am saying?
Strangely no one called her -‘Ella the Black haired Pompadour’ but I suppose being gay ear-marked Terry out for his unique name and solitary status in small town Shettleston. There weren’t many gay may ‘out’ back then in the 70s.
Terry was also middle aged and lived in a caravan out at the back of the café, like some exotic gypsy where a collection of unseen dogs that barked a cacophony of sound, were tied to a fence post.
He had a face that sagged around the eyes as he had been beaten too often and the black eyes that had just faded eventually sat like deflated poached eggs on his weather beaten cheeks. He was never without a bruise, which seemed normal to me at time, am ashamed to admit.
He usually had a black eye that was in several shades of fading, the colours ranged from a deep scuddy purple to a pale yellowish green. It somehow oddly, sadly suited him.
He drank too much booze as well, he would often drag a wee flask of whisky out of his back pocket and take a slug at it between serving up soggy chips and black edged crispy looking fried eggs.
He wore skin tight black jeans, a baggy bright shirt on his scrawny frame and always had a bright pink chiffon scarf tied around his neck in a big fancy bow.
It was the kind of fashion statement that made drunk and angry men hit him often, and I admired his tenacity and the sheer force of will that made him continue to wear it in the face of fear and aggression.
Shettleston was not ready for a man who wore a pink pussy-cat bow tied scarf and flaunted his love of Shirley Bassey by camping around dancing and impersonating her at the top of his husky voice.
On his head he wore a tight black beret at a jaunty angle.
I was seventeen. I shared his love of music and the café had a great juke box, it was at the height of the ‘Grease’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ era and the songs of both top box office films would blare out of that old 10 pence a song silver coloured juke box.
Terry and I would dance in the tiny space between the booths and sing along to the music. The dogs out back would bark and Ella would scream for more chips.
The café seating area was based around a corner shape with a few boxed-in Formica bench seats that you slid into with fixed Formica yellow tables with aluminium trim.
In the window there was a big ‘Terry’s All Gold Chocolate’ advertisement display made of cardboard that pulled out into a two dimensional image that looked like a big balcony overlooking some Mediterranean lake.
It was dreamy and exotic to me, the cardboard image was of a young beautiful couple dressed in elegant evening wear.
They stood at the white stucco balcony and looked out at the still blue water and I often stared at it and wondered if I would ever find such a well dressed man in a dickie bow who would give me chocolates beside a moonlit lake.
Terry would watch me stare at it; he would scoot in beside me, cross his skinny legs and ask “Isn’t that scene gorgeous? I want to go there too, where do you think it is?”
I would shake my head and imagine myself in a big blue dress looking over the calm waters with a sexy man at my side. “How deep is your love” the Bee Gees played in the background and I was whisked away in my imagination again.
I would often joke with Terry and ask him if he was the chocolate man in the advert of the same name and he would laugh back at me “Yes, I am the chocolate man, I melt when you hold me tight” and then he would twirl around as he held aloft a plate of greasy chips, and then bend elegantly and kiss the cardboard man in the dickie bow and evening suit. I would giggle and clap my hands.
Ella would scream at the top of her voice and tell me to stop encouraging him.
The heart of the café lay with Ella’s wee dog Tootsie.
It was a tiny pom-pom orange haired dog, I don’t know the breed, but it was strange looking.
It had a reddish coat like a fluffy squirrel’s with a wee pointy blackish face and tiny wee skinny sleek ginger legs that peeked out of the fluffy body.
It yapped constantly and bit everyone it came within six inches of.
It was small enough to fit inside my mammy’s old shopping bag, and often I fantasised about shoving it there, to shut it up.
The wondrous and bizarre thing about the evil ginger fluff ball was….it often had a heart attack.
Now I don’t know if it was actually a heart attack, but it would yap furiously and then fall on its back, like the biggest drama queen alive, then it would gasp and Ella would scream “My baby, help my baby” and all hell would be let loose.
She would physically throw the hot chips and runny eggs at the wall, flap around hysterically, Terry would throw up his hands and scream like a banshee as his scarf got entangled in his face and Ella would demand anyone that was present to press on the chest of the wee upturned dog till it came back to life.
That role often fell to me, I would jump up…as if I had been trained in dog CPR, and then grab the orange smelly beast, clear the Formica table with my hand like you see professional doctors do in preparation for an emergency operation.
The dog would be put on the table, I would press onto its wee tufty orange haired chest a few times and then it would leap onto its scrawny legs and bite me, every time.
Terry and Ella would be running into the street screaming around each other as passers by would gawp at them, realise the dog was having an ‘attack’ and carry on as normal.
Customers would sit and wait till the drama passed and Ella would not come back in till the dog was standing at the door yapping again, she would scoop it up and kiss its horrible wee rat like mouth as Terry stroked it and whispered soft soothing words. They were joined in the elation of their baby still being alive.
Then the café would get back to normal.
One time when I was being ‘Janey the Dog Doctor’, a young tall boy who worked in the bar across the road from the café came in and watched me perform on the beast and quietly said to me “That dog pretends to die every day, you do know that don’t you?”
“Yes, I know but it scares Ella”
I could feel him smiling at me as I kept my eyes down on the dog, which was now back on its feet.
Its attack was not as life threatening that day; I think the young guy’s honesty shamed the wee animal.
He laughed and said “Ella and Terry are a couple of fucking drama queens, they love the attention”
I stared at him angrily, his deep brown eyes held my stare.
I snapped back “Some people need a wee drama to get through the day”.
He shrugged and walked away.
He left slamming the door behind him and it shook the fancy cardboard display that fell from its position and landed flat on the floor.
Mediterranean was upside down and the happy couple landed in some cola that was spilt on the floor. I gasped at the sight of it – it was all collapsed and distorted looking.
Terry rushed to pick it up; he looked at me and wiped it down with a wee cloth and then he carefully put it back up at the window.
“All good Janey, nothing damaged” he spoke softly “The happy couple are fine”
Terry looked at me and patted the cardboard man on the head and came over to see how Tootsie was recovering.
“That boy fancies you” Terry said as the dog jumped back up and viscously bit my arm.
“I don’t like him, he is a dick” I snapped as I sucked at the bruise on my wrist.
Terry smiled and winked at me.
I wonder what happened to Terry, Ella and Tootsie; I hope they lived happily ever after, I grew up a lot that year and moved to Redcar in Yorkshire for a wee spell, just a change, it wasn’t the Mediterranean, but it was different from Shettleston.
And that tall boy who came into the cafe?
Well Terry was right, he did fancy me and a year after that first meeting, when I came home in 1979 to see my mammy, and we met up and started dating and got married in 1980.
To think we met over a dog that pretended to be dead in a café where a gay man with a bruised eye and jaunty cap worked with a woman who wore a huge black wig.
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