Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

The Ends of Our Tethers

Thirteen Sorry Stories

by Alasdair Gray

“Gray manages. . . to transfer the cranky wisdom he has gathered through his 70 years into clear-headed observation of modern life–marriage and relationships as well as the isolation, loss, and the failures which come from these interactions–and steadily dissect them with a mischievous eye.” –Michael Standaert, The San Francisco Chronicle

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 192
  • Publication Date February 12, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5626-8
  • Dimensions 4.75" x 7.25"
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

The Ends of Our Tethers is the first work of fiction in seven years by “one of the most important living writers in English” (Stephen Bernstein, The New York Times)

Alasdair Gray is Scotland’s greatest living writer. Critics internationally compared his magnum opus, Lanark, to Joyce’s Dubliners, in its thorough, nuanced social examination of the peoples of Glasgow. Now, with The Ends of our Tethers, Gray’s long awaited, first fiction in seven years, American audiences have thirteen wry, topical, often hilarious stories to enjoy. Fans of the short fiction of Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, and T. Coraghessen Boyle, will revel in Gray’s masterful, witty performances.

In “Aiblins,” a writing professor is taunted by a perhaps-genius, perhaps-fraud student. In “Job’s Skin Game, the narrator humbly tells his life story like the evening news, including the strangely exquisite pleasure he receives from scratching at his skin condition. A condition he’s developed since losing his two sons in the Twin Towers as well as a small fortune in the dot-com meltdown.

Gray’s stories defy genre, and his angular, playful style, prodigious wit and razor-sharp intellect are matched by his remarkable skill with the short story form. The Ends of Our Tethers is vintage Gray–accessible, experimental, mischievous, wide ranging, beautifully written, and wise.


‘very few writers could elevate a bad case of eczema into a hilarious near-horror story, but Scottish author Gray does just that with Job’s Skin Game–one of several weird and wonderful tales in the author-illustrator’s 18th book. . . . Gray has a particular gift for wry character sketches. . . . [He] charms us into enjoying the spectacle of his oddballs staggering, muttering, and fretting about their weary lives. B+” –Nancy Miller, Entertainment Weekly

“Gray manages. . . to transfer the cranky wisdom he has gathered through his 70 years into clear-headed observation of modern life–marriage and relationships as well as the isolation, loss, and the failures which come from these interactions–and steadily dissect them with a mischievous eye.” –Michael Standaert, The San Francisco Chronicle

“A book with a sneaky, cumulative power; the prose is as spare and provocative as the illustrations of leering demon skulls and sly young women drawn by Gray himself.” –Publishers Weekly

“The pages glow with keen and incisive wit . . .

lest we forget, [Alasdair Gray] is one of the most gifted writers who have put pen to paper in the English language.” –Irvine Welsh, The Guardian (UK)

“A truly great collection–funny, righteous, full of sadness and good strong anger and unbelievably inventive with both. Gray is a necessary genius.” –Ali Smith, author of Hotel World

“Gray is in my estimation a great writer, perhaps the greatest writer in Britain today.” –Will Self, author of Great Apes and How the Dead Live

“Utterly original, full of life and a wry, infectious openness. Gray is a courageous, ornery writer, afraid of nothing, getting into all sorts of heretofore unexplored corners of the human condition.” –George Saunders



A man no longer young strolls thoughtfully on a narrow footpath along a former railway line. Noises tell of a nearby motorway but brambles, elders and hawthorns on each side hide all but the straight empty path ahead until he sees a small clearing among bushes on his right. Two girls sit here at the foot of an old telegraph pole. He pauses, gazing at the top of the cracked grey timber pole. It has cross-pieces with insulators like small white jam pots from which broken wires dangle. He is aware that the girls are in their teens, look surly and depressed, wear clumsy thick-soled boots and baggy military trousers from which rise pleasantly slim bodies. One says crossly, “What are you staring at?” “At the wires of that sad sad pole!” says the man without lowering his eyes. “A few years ago they carried messages from this land of ours to a world-wide commercial empire.” “A few years? It was yonks ago,” says the girl scornfully.

Without looking straight at her the man glimpses a stud piercing her lower lip and one through the wing of a nostril. He says, “Yonks. Yes. I suppose telegraphs were defunct before you were born.”

He continues looking up at it until the other girl stands, stretches her arms, pretends to yawn, says, “I’ll better away,” and walks off through the bushes. Her companion still sits as she did before the stroller arrived.

A minute later he takes a folded newspaper from his coat pocket, unfolds and lays it on the grass where the departed girl was, then sits down with hands folded on the knee of a bent leg. Looking sideways at the girl (who still pretends to ignore him) he says quietly, “I must ask you a difficult question about . . . about the eff word. Does it shock or annoy you? I don’t mean when used as a swear word, I detest swearing, I mean when used as a word for the thing . . . the act lovers do together. Eh?” After allowing her a moment to reply he speaks briskly as if they had reached an agreement.

“Now I fully realise that a lovely young woman like you –” (she sneers) ” – don’t sneer, has no wish to eff with a boring old fart like me in bushes beside a derelict railway line. But I suppose you are unemployed and need money?” “Fucking right I do!” she cries. ‘don’t swear. This is an unfair world but I am no hypocrite, I am glad I have money you need. We should therefore discuss how much I am willing to pay for what you are prepared to do. I promise that a wee chat will probably give all the stimulus I need. I have never been greatly enamoured by the down-to-earth, flat­out business of effing.” “Ten pounds!” says the girl, suddenly facing him at last. He nods and says, “Not unreasonable.”

“Ten pounds now! Nothing without cash up front,” she says, holding out a hand. From a wallet within his coat he gives her bank notes.

“Thanks,” she says, pocketing them and standing up, “Cheerio.”

He looks up at her wistfully. She says, “You’re too weird for me as well as too old and you’re right. This is an unfair world.”

She goes off through the bushes. He sighs and sits there, brooding.

Then hears a rustling of leaves. The other girl has returned and stands watching him. He ignores her until she says, “I didnae really go away. I was listening all the time behind that bush.” ‘mm.”

“I don’t think you’re weird. Not dangerous-weird. You’re just funny.” “Name?” he asks drearily. ‘davida.”

“I thought the Scottish custom of making daughters’ names out of fathers’ names had died out.”

“It came back. What’s your name?” “I’m giving nothing else away today Davida. Don’t expect it.”

But he is looking at her. She grins cheerily back until he shrugs and pats the grass beside him. She hunkers down slightly further away, hugging her legs with both arms and asking brightly, “What were you going to say to Sharon?” “You too want cash from me.”

“Aye, some, but not as much as Sharon. Forget about money. Say what you like, I won’t mind.”

He stares at her, opens his mouth, swallows, shuts his eyes very tight and mutters,

“Bigpocketswithbuttonedflaps.” “Eh?”

“Big,” he explains deliberately. “Pockets. With. Buttoned. Flaps. At last I have said it.”

“They turn you on?” says Davida, looking at her pockets in a puzzled way. “Yes,” he says defiantly, “because violence is sexy! These pockets are militar y pockets with room for ammunition clips and grenades and iron rations. On women they look excitingly . . . deliciously . . . unsuitable.” “Yes, I suppose that’s why they’re in fashion but they’re nothing to get excited about.” “I enjoy being excited about them,” he groans, covering his face with his hands.

“Were you a school teacher?”

“You’ll get nothing more out of me, Davida . . . Why do you think I was a teacher?”

“Because you’re bossy as well as polite. Yes, and teachers have to pretend to be better than normal folk so they’re bound to go a bit daft when they retire. What did you want with Sharon’s pockets that was worth ten quid?” He looks obstinately away from her. ‘did you want to stick your hands in them like THIS?” she giggles, putting her hands in her pockets. ‘did you want to fumble about in them like THIS?”

“No more dirty talk!” orders a very tall thin youth emerging from the bushes, “How dare you molest this young lady with your obscene and suggestive insinuations?”

‘mE molest HER? Ha!” cries the man and lies back flat on the grass with hands clasped behind head. He thinks it wise to look as relaxed and unchallenging as possible for he is now greatly outnumbered. Beside the tall youth is a smaller, stouter youth who looks far more menacing because his face is expressionless, his head completely bald, and beside him stands Sharon saying scornfully, “Big pockets with buttoned flaps!”

“You should have left us alone a bit longer,” grumbles Davida. “He was starting to enjoy himself.” “He was starting to enjoy his antisocial fetishistic propensities with a lassie young enough to be his grand-daughter!” cries the tall youth fiercely. ‘molesting two lassies in fifteen minutes!” says Sharon. “We’ve witnesses to prove it. He’s got to pay us for that.” The man says, “I’ve paid you already.” “That . . . is not an attitude . . . I would advocate if you want to stay in one piece,” says the tall boy slowly taking from a big pocket in his trousers a knife with a long blade. The smaller, more dangerous­looking youth says, “Hullo, Mr McCorquodale.”

The man sits up to see him better and asks, “How’s the family, Shon?” ‘dad isnae out yet,” says the shorter boy, “but Sheila’s doing well in TV rentals. She went to Australia.”

“Yes Sheila was the smartest of you. I advised her to emigrate.”

“I KNEW he was a teacher,” says Davida smugly.

“You stupid fucking cretin!” the tall boy yells at the shorter one, “If you’d kept out the way we could have rolled him for all he’s got, buggered off and nothing would have happened! We don’t live round here, we’ve no police record, nobody could have found us! But now he knows you we’ll have to evade identification by cutting off his head and hands and burying them miles away!” He saws the air wildly with the knife. The girls’ faces express disgust. The smaller youth says mildly, ‘don’t do that to old Corky, he wasnae one of the worst.” “Not one of the worst?” cries the ex­teacher jumping to his feet with surprising agility, ‘did I not make my gym a living hell for you and your brothers? I also advise YOU,” he tells the taller youth, “to put that knife away. You obviously don’t know how to handle it.”

“And you do?” says the tall boy sarcastically.

“Yes, son, I do. I served five years in the army before I took to teaching. Your combat training is all from television and video games. I have learned armed AND unarmed combat from professional killers paid by the British government. Davida. Sharon. Shon. Persuade your friend to pocket that bread knife. Tell him he’s a fine big fellow but I’m stronger than I look and if he’s really interested in dirty fighting I can show him some tricks that’ll have the eyes popping out of his head. Tell him I gave Sharon nearly all the money I carry so if he needs more he’ll have to come home with me.”

And McCorquodale smiles rather
wistfully at the tall youth’s
combat trousers.

Copyright ” 2003 Alasdair Gray. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.