I lived in the armpits of the world, but it wasn’t like me to leave work early. I’d a good job at Boots the Chemist, with prospects, but my skin rippled with loathing. Free perfume samples. Behind the counter, regulation, hair. I tied it in a chignon to make me look French. Matching clasp pearl earrings, enamel scuffed, but catching the glow of my hair and skin. Fire-brigade red lipstick to brighten the customer’s day when I smiled. Little flowers on what I liked to think was my Coco Chanel frock, standard white blouse to cover over-heavy breasts, which didn’t stop men gawping when the wife or girlfriend were spraying their wrists, or looking over our range. Rimmelling themselves into a Sphinx like attractiveness to other Sphinxes.
A straight face and a rough nerve could get you through a lot of things. I stammered, nothing too pronounced, when they asked my opinion—which was always the same sales chatter as they tilted their chin to emphasise what they wanted: cheap, water-resistant mascara in buckets, enough mascara to join two common house bricks without them sliding apart; Max factor and a steady hand. They’d need to listen real hard to hear the lisping noise, like I did. My face and the back of my neck pinked in response, and I’d like to have run, but could only widen my smile to hide behind. Proclaim it was nothing, which made it worse.
Men loved it. All ages, cute guys to men with bald heads. They eyed me, and followed me about like a dog that thought I’d mince in my pockets. But I was a different kettle of fish.
I thought Scotland was all castles, drystone dykes, horned cattle and men in kilts. I’d a copy of Colin Wilson’s Outsiders in my diamante bag with a tissue and a sketchy road map sketched in black biro. The address of an old witch that was meant to have died at least twice.
Tribute paid to goat-faced men for information by offering sex in return. Fair exchange. Fucked if I did. Fucked if I didn’t. I didn’t know how to say no. They arranged business meetings in out of the way places. Weathered stone showing over garden walls. Obelisks, Victorian headstones slanting, angels drunk with time, keeping an eye of us, making sure we kept to the gravel paths when we bared our bums. Floral tributes, momento mori, wilting tokens of remembrance. Plastic wreathes, florid and vivid, designed to last longer than the Third Reich. Cold and rough fingers sliding up my thigh, groping my breasts as they ritually enacted taking my virginity—again. And a promise that I’d never tell her what they’d told me, or I’d get what for. And they’d know. And they’d find me.
I was the opposite of leaving, I was going home. Motorway led to more motorways, windows smeared with rain, led to shorter leashes of road. And in Glasgow the currents of the Clyde trailed behind, flat as the fairways on a golf course, but with bridges that went the wrong way as I dithered and dipped and had to come back, and swing inland. The smell of the water following me carried by a gale-force wind.
The problem of parking solved by the Beetle running out of petrol near the footbridge I should have crossed, marked as a squidgy line on the tissue. But it might also have been dots of eyeliner. My eyes had filled up and rather than have Panda eyes I’d used the map as a makeshift hanky. It hadn’t seemed important.
Pulling on a white shoulder raincoat from C&A and stepping out of the car in a pair of moccasin boots that made anything possible. Trees and bushes along the canal lashed by the rain, swished in the wind. I hugged my thin arms around my fat pregnant breasts and walked into the gale before I got to front door of the cottage. Buttercups, weed tangle and ivy darkened the walls. Whitewashed stones held together by plant life the wind whistled through, and rain battered against. Moss grabbed hold of the blue slate roof and colonised it. A patchwork wire fence, knitted together with different coloured baling wire, string, and what looked like nylon tights, ran almost in a straight line along the towpath marking the edge of the property. Hemmed in hens had plucked the grass bare. A single bird ran helter-skelter, with a clucking cacophony in the pens behind it. I chapped at the door, timidly.
I waited of a reply, but when none came my pulse quickened. I felt suddenly alone, wondering if I’d the wrong cottage and sobbed a little, using the map to sponger my eyes. Dock leaves sprouting among overgrown grass caught in my boots and almost tripped me as I sidled up to the window.
I wiped windblown dirt from the top half of the windowpane. Held my fingers in a crock salute against my forehead as I leaned in to block out daylight. My eyes adjusted as I peered through the gauze of net curtains into he clutter of the living room. Peeling plaster yellowing on the walls, falling off bricks in different coloured patches and leaving them pink and angry looking. Worn bare floorboards rather than carpets. A neglected sofa against the back wall with floral antimacassar covers on the arms. White porcelain urns with brown bulrushes poking out and adding to the gloom. Cut-glass bowl full of woody fumerary and brick-a-brack on a rickety table at the window. Westclock on the mantel piece. An old woman sat in a wicker rocker with plump red cushions embossed with the image of a stork, stroking a cat and looking into the flames in the grate. A poker with a thistle top, set within hand’s reach. It was a cosier scene around the fireside rug and fire surround, I didn’t want to disturb.
Her head turned and I scuttled backwards, tripping and falling onto my butt. I felt, again, like crying.
I was slow to get up. My hand smeared with the stink of dog shit.
She was framed by the electric light of a thirty-watt bulb in the hall. Her shortness gave her stature. I couldn’t have imagined her as a big, long, drip of a thing with a face like a surprised trout. White hair tied back, hands and forehead deeply spotted like a blackbird egg. Her eyes were bird-like, missing nothing. She wore a circular cairngorm brooch on her blouse,.and a no-nonsense herringbone tweed skirt fell below her knees.
She spoke as if one of us was deaf, but with a soft burr. ‘You alright there, dear?’ And added before I could reply, ‘You need a warmer coat, you silly article’.
I held my hand up and made a face, ‘I think I’ve got…’
‘You better come in then, dear.’ She looked over my head. ‘I thought it was those kids, knocking on the door, banging on the windows, letting the hens out, driving me mad, making my life a misery.’
I was slow to get up. Holding my hand out like an unwanted trophy between us, as I passed her in the hall. Conscience of how bad it smelled, and how marked my coat and boots were.
She shuffled her large feet in brown brogues, with bright eyeholes for the laces, to attention as I passed. She sniffed somewhere above my head. ‘Oh, to be young and ripe like yerself.’
I was glad to stand, dripping, inside and get warm. A long silence followed, broken by me asking where the toilet was.
‘Straight ahead,’ the old woman flicked her head. ‘It’s not much,’ she warned me. ‘But I thought you’d have known that after coming all this way for nothing.’