“There’s that man again… “
Mrs. Munroe’s eyes narrow dangerously. She doesn’t like vagabonds and other ‘derelicts’ on her property. Especially not when her property is her business.
I try not to notice as I scramble to salvage some greasy-oily fish and chips for the Danish backpacker who’s already been waiting too long.
“Here ye go, sir. That’ll be 3 pounds, please.”
“Oh, no more – that’s fine. I love fish and chips – it’s so English.”
“Yeah, well, we only have it because the tourists like it, luv,” Mrs. Munroe turns and says with the fakest smile I ever saw her put on. And I have seen quite a few.
I catch myself staring at the man again.
He seems to be shuffling around out on the parking lot before the pier, like a piece of flotsam, something thrown overboard from one of the fishing boats – something that can’t decide if it wants to come ashore or not.
“I wish he’d go away,” Mrs. Munroe grumbles under her breath, while she heaps a new frozen avalanche of the little squares that once were fish down into the seething oil.
The oil hisses angrily and erupts like a small geyser. I duck instinctively into my own corner, near the far end of the counter.
I have learned – in the very beginning – to watch her movements closely, so I know exactly when she’s going to ‘make the plunge’, because often she doesn’t give you a fair warning (in fact, she never does that). And when you are standing too close you can easily get some of the greasy burning stuff on your clothes – or worse – in your hair – or even eyes. Once it was very close.
And the problem is, down here in Sea Foods in Dunvegan harbour, Isle of Skye, tourist magnet number one in the Northwestern Isles – maybe all of Scotland – ‘close quarters’ is not something that’s located in a particular part of Mrs. Munroe’s small fast food diner.
Close quarters is all there is in Sea Foods.
” – Cairistiona, luv, would ye please mind those chips! I’ll be goin’ out an’ havin’ me a wee word with that derelict.”
“Yes, Mrs. Munroe.”
Now the backpacker also turns his head.
“Hmm… ” he comments, mouth full of the good stuff. “I saw him on the road up here. It was like he was just walking, like he had been walking all the way.”
“Yes, I bet he had,” I hear Mrs. Munroe say as she shuts the door roughly and then the shark is out of the cage.
- It’s not that I don’t like Mrs. Munroe, I should add so you don’t misunderstand.
She’s our neighbour and she gave me this job that I so desperately need if I want just a little extra money, and a girl of 11 (soon 12) always needs a little extra money – especially when her friends seem to be showered in pocket money all the time.
Especially when she doesn’t want to come off as more abnormal than she already is.
You’d be surprised what a new blouse or a pair of new boots can do to rub out that abnormal stamp, make it almost invisible.
At least for a while.
I watch as Mrs. Munroe talks to the vagabond, first quietly, then more harshly. Then her arms begin to make those scythe-like movements in the air, as she repeats the motion that at the same time is a combination of pointing to where she wants him to go – namely away from ‘her’ parking lot – and a demonstration of the consequences if he does not go where she wants him to go. Now.
The man seems to be very little affected – at first. Then he slowly picks up his dirty rucksack. Like the rest of his clothes it looks like it has been standing too close to some chimney or something.
I almost feel I can smell it, although all I can smell is the oil that fizzles and burps behind me. And his hair – it’s like it’s fool of soot too (or whatever it is). I can’t help staring. He looks dirtier than the chimney sweeper that comes around a few times down in Glendale.
I wonder who he is.
I have not seen him before. Could he have come all the way from the mainland?
It’s not that we really have any homeless here on Skye. It’s far too cold, especially now that we’re heading for autumn. But sometimes drifters come around. My father told me that he once found a man sleeping in the woods, half-dead from cold. (It was October – can you believe it!)
Of course, after the accident and all the ruckuss that followed my father won’t be finding anyone in the woods any time soon.
I wonder… if he misses it? The forest, I mean…
No, I should not think about that.
Maybe there’s a sharp stone that I got into my shoe and can’t get out, but I can still bloody well walk and I am going to keep walking until I can’t feel it anymore.
Why did they have to fire my father. It wasn’t his fault that… he died. But Mr. Oldman said it was not my fault either. It was not…
- And that is why this is good work.
Because it is work that makes you concentrate. You concentrate on the fish, on the chips, on the burning oil and if you don’t concentrate enough then you get burned yourself. I -
I look up again and the man is gone.
Mrs. Munroe comes back in, triumphant.
“There. That’s the end o’ him.”
“Where was he from?” the backpacker asks while he slowly drinks some cola. His voice sounds strange, distant and metallic, because he speaks while he still holds the can close to the mouth – but only for a moment.
“I didnae ask where he be from, luv,” Mrs. Munroe replies curtly and moves into position behind the counter again.
“I think he might be some drinker or something, come up here because he couldnae get his welfare anymore down in Glasgow.”
“Oh,” the backpacker says. “In Denmark we have homeless people, too.”
“Really?” Mrs. Munroe says while she pulls up some new fish squares from the freezer and shuffles them.
“Yes,” the backpacker says. “But most of them are in Copenhagen, near some of the big train stations. It’s quite sad, really. I wonder what happened to this man that made him like this – that made him come all the way up here?”
“Would ye be wanting anything else, luv?” Mrs. Munroe just says. “Some chocolate maybe – for the rest o’ yer journey.”
“No thank you,” the backpacker says. “I’ve got to go up and see the castle now.”
“Ah yes,” Mrs. M says. “The Dunvegan is lovely, inn’t?”
“It’s totally awesome,” the backpacker says. “My girlfriend is very much into flowers. I can’t wait till I show her pictures of the garden. I’ve heard so much about it.”
“No, that would be luv’ly. What does yer girlfriend do – back in Denmark?”
“She studies at – “
” – Cairistiona – mind those chips!”
“Yes, Mrs. Munroe.”
“Ye can listen in all ye want, but just do yer job, okay?”
“Yes, Mrs. Munroe.”
But I’m not listening to the backpacker’s story about his girlfriend who studies something called anthropology in Copenhagen, something which both me and Mrs. Munroe will have forgotten the moment he goes out the door and walks up to the castle to take those pictures for her.
I’m looking out the window – out at the parking lot, trying to remember what the man who was just there looked like.
And then I find myself imagining not just what he looked like a moment ago, but also what he looked like before – before he came here.
Did he look like… me?
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