I once called a child a paedophile by mistake. Now, don’t get me wrong: some of the young people I worked with were sexual predators; some molested younger children or were guilty of sexual assaults. Not many, thank goodness, but a few. The boy I was chatting with in the Children’s Home I’d just started work in wasn’t one of them.
He blinked at me and the lounge fell silent. I could tell I’d put my foot in it, but I didn’t know how. He was bigger than me by almost a foot, solidly built, and a year away from being turfed out of his poorly personalised room and deposited in a Bed and Breakfast, hostel, or if he was very lucky, a 1 Bed flat. His fingers flexed and I could smell the sweat breaking through the body spray they all used, children desperate to be popular men.
“What did you call me?”
“A dirty beast. Your room’s a pigsty, I can’t tell the colour of your carpet, and you’ve half the home’s mugs lying about growing mould and God knows what. Get the vacuum cleaner and sort it out.”
“I’m no a beast.”
The other kids, aged between 10 and 14, were widening their eyes at each other. Some giggled nervously and shrank back into their seats, clutching cushions as if for protection. I was standing by the fireplace, where he’d been leaning against the wall and bitching about the rubbish on TV. He stood over me now, not quite ready to punch me, and I had no idea why. The rest of the staff were in the office or checking the rooms upstairs for petrol bombs and the like, while I chatted to the residents, teasing them and enjoying their banter. Somehow I’d offended the biggest one, and I had no hope of building relationships with them if this turned into a fight.
“What should I call you then? Your room’s dreadful.”
I was still smiling, still keeping my voice light and friendly, still wondering how the hell to calm the situation. Generally, I have an air of naivety about me which leads to folk sometimes taking advantage or pulling my leg. On this occasion, it stood me in good stead.
“D’you know what you just called me?”
“Yes, a beast… You know, like an animal.”
He shook his head at me, glancing at the others still frozen on the sofas, who were giggling and muttering “Whit? Naw.”
“Where d’you come from?”
I could tell he was trying to gain a measure of me and why I’d said what I’d said, and I smiled a little bit wider (don’t lash out, don’t hit me, whatever it is, it’s not worth it) running through my mind.
“Ayr. But I’ve been working in the south of England till just there.”
“Your accent’s funny.”
“My mum’s English.”
He stared at me for a little longer, then ran one of his big, scarred-knuckle hands over his super short hair. He wasn’t quite a man, but he wasn’t far off it.
“You don’t talk like us.”
“No. But just say if you don’t get what I’m saying, and I’ll ask you if I don’t understand. Fair enough?”
He smirked at me, and there were a few catcalls of ‘muppet’ from behind the cushions.
“The first thing you need to know – don’t call anyone, anyone, a beast. D’you no know what that means here?”
I shook my head, wondering what the fuss was about, but willing to learn.
“A beast is a paedophile. You’re lucky you didn’t get battered there.”
I bit my lip, horrified. Blushed scarlet and clapped a hand to my mouth as if I could pull the word back in.
“I’m soooooo sorry – to me it’s just another word for animal. I won’t use it here again.”
He was right. I was lucky. In more ways than one.
There’s only so much a thesaurus can tell you. Only so much a guidebook will show. Nowhere in my research prior to moving ‘Down South’ again was the word ‘cock’ mentioned. In Scotland a lot of people will call females of any age ‘hen’, but ‘cock’ is really quite rude, used – unless you’re a poultry farmer – in the same way as ‘dick’ or ‘knob’. I was quite surprised when charming pensioners with gleaming dentures would call me cock in the street, but I soon got used to it and the other ways of using the same language I’d known since childhood. I’m quite gaffe-prone by nature, and wrote a crime thriller ‘In her skin’, (recommended for shortlisting for the 2011 Virginia Prize), about a Scottish police officer who moves to Warrington and experiences culture shock. A lot of her experiences are based on mine, including this one:
“So why did you ask for some for supper? It’s only down the street from you, you could go back later, you lazy git.” Wigwam was rooting through my glove compartment and tutting over the CDs as I drove through town to the modern monstrosity that served as Warrington’s A&E.
“I didn’t! It just means ‘and chips’. That’s all. I’m hungry, I wanted fish and chips, that’s what we call that combination where I’m from, a fish supper.”
I was a bit gutted that when we’d torn into the clean white paper to get at the grub inside, mine had held three golden slabs of battered fish with not a chip in sight. Wigwam, ever the gentleman, had given me some of his. The ‘bad chips’ as he’d called them, the ones with a wee bit of green, or bits of hairy root still attached. I wasn’t fussy, they tasted just as nice doused with salt and vinegar as regular ones. Bit chewier maybe.”
Now we’ve moved back to Scotland after eight years ‘Down South’ we’re adjusting once again. My son has only heard Scottish at Christmas and on the occasional holiday home, though we did play The Proclaimers to him as a baby, so he’s experiencing our initial shock in reverse. When my stepdad told him to clap the dog to stop her bouncing up for attention, he looked puzzled for a moment before bursting into applause. In Scotland it means to ‘pet’ or ‘stroke’. A lot of the time when people speak to him he doesn’t understand a word of it. But it’s the same words, mostly, just used in another way.
We’re getting by, and he understands a bit more every day. So long as he doesn’t call anyone ‘cock’ or a ‘beast’, I think we’ll be alright.