Jan. 25 is Robbie Burns Day, when Scots gather in pubs around the world to raise a glass in honour of their favourite dead poet. My uncle has long hosted a Robbie Burns dinner at his brewpub, for which he overlooks no small detail. Cask ales and haggis are served, a piper is hired and a kilted Scotsman emcees.
The last time I waitressed at one of these dinners, I was a mature student living alone in a boxy apartment in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. My love life consisted of a lopsided flirtation with my neighbour, an actor who paired words like “niggling” and “acrimony” when he spoke of love. School was mostly a grinding bore. I actually looked forward to my waitressing shifts, the one night a week I bothered with lip gloss. Robbie Burns dinners were great for tips. After all, it’s deep winter and you’re hauling pints for a poetry-loving crowd warmed up on good beer.
This particular Burns night began like all others. The crowd was jovial and by 8 o’clock my forearm was already aching from tray after tray of beer. Before the main course was served, the room quieted for the ceremonial blessing. The Scotsman helmed the room decked out in full regalia: the tartan kilt, the knee-highs, the dress sporran and the sgian-dubh dagger tucked into his sock.
On a table in front of him sat the haggis, a Scottish delicacy that’s basically sheep stomach stuffed with boiled intestines. With a flourish, the Scotsman picked up a carving knife and began to recite one of Burns’s more famous poems, Address to a Haggis.
By the third stanza, the Scotsman’s face had turned scarlet. The audience was eating it up, but I hovered at the back of the room and chewed my nails, unimpressed. I’d seen this guy do his routine the year before. Waving the knife around, he slashed at the haggis, showering the people in the front row with chunks of sheep guts.
Then, the knife slipped from his hand.
A 12-inch carving knife whirled 30 feet across the room, sailed over top the patrons, and slammed into the wall next to my head. Denting the drywall, it came to rest on my shoe, the curled blade still aglow with meaty oil.
Burns himself once wrote: “Death, oft I’ve feared your fatal blow.” I was 27 at the time, young and single. Death was distant conjecture. I’d never so much as broken a bone. Dying by accident was for people who took recreational drugs or drove too fast. I knew there was that sliver of chance I might die early. I could see burning to death while pulling children from an overturned bus. Heroics? Fine. But death by folly? Never.
Every face in the room spun my way. Still, it took me a few beats to process why the haggis knife was now resting on my sneaker. I bent down to grab it, then looked up to see the Scotsman gaping at his empty hand. The audience broke into applause as I weaved through the tables to return it. Someone in the front row was already recounting the story to his stunned tablemates. Damn thing nearly took her head off!
Once the haggis was served, the staff convened in the kitchen. The Scotsman hugged me tight to his chest and choked out an apology. My uncle looked as though he might be sick. I tried to collect myself in the staff washroom, but I couldn’t stop sweating, and my pulse was in my ears.
When I finally emerged to collect empty pint glasses, a man took me by the arm.
“That was close,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“No, I mean close,” he said. “You ducked.”
Ducked? I’m fairly sure I didn’t duck. I’m fairly sure I was too busy chewing my fingernails to even see the knife coming.
“Go buy a lottery ticket,” his wife said, before tucking a folded twenty into my apron.
I made $300 in tips that night. A lot of people looked right at me and hugged me like an old friend. I went home to drink wine and Google dumb ways to die. I sat in the bathtub and imagined the conversation between my uncle and my parents. Yes, that’s right. The haggis knife. In her eye. I imagined my closest friends stifling laughter at my funeral, comedians I’d never met working me into their routine: Did you hear about that dead waitress? That Scotsman must feel awfully sheepish! Ba-da-boom!
I hung up my waitressing apron for good that spring, but almost a decade later, I’m pretty sure that Scotsman still emcees those dinners. I’d like to sit down with him over a pint and exchange versions of this story. Sometimes I wonder if I’m remembering it correctly, the thud of the knife and the blinking disbelief on his face, or the whole tale’s been skewed by time and the imperfection of my memory. I’m sure everyone present that night has a version of this story. In some, I am the hapless waitress and, in others, a beer-schlepping, knife-dodging ninja. One day, I’ll tell my sons the story that paints me as superhuman, because that’s the one they’ll want to hear.
I imagine the Scotsman tells it like a lark. That funny thing that happened on Robbie Burns night. Maybe he absolves himself entirely, pins the whole thing on an oily knife handle. Should we meet again, he might say I’ve aged a bit. I’d show him photographs of my family and tell him all I’ve done with my life. I like to think we’d clink glasses and marvel at our luck, at that sliver of chance that spared us a fatal blow in exchange for a good story.
Amy Stuart lives in Toronto.