My name is Shona MacLeod. I was born and brought up on the small Hebridean island of North Uist, population 1,487 and tomorrow I shall be leaving to travel to begin my studies at Edinburgh University. My love of history was always going to take me to places further afield. I have grown up in a place rich in history where my love for the past has been nurtured and blossomed into a passion to discover more. To that end, next week I begin a four-year degree in Scottish history. I am full to bursting with excitement at the prospect of expanding my knowledge of the past. Today I am taking the time to visit my favourite places before I leave. I will be home for Christmas, but it seems like so far away. The longest I have ever been away from home was to travel to Edinburgh for my interview; the Reverend Halliday, who frequently travels to the capital on church business, accompanied me. His knowledge of the city was invaluable to me, ensuring I did not get lost or run into any unexpected difficulties. We spent two evenings in Edinburgh, before returning to North Uist. I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people around me and the University was bigger than the island!
I wandered along the shore; the sun was shining, belying the distinct chill in the air warning of the approaching harsher weather to come. Island life was not for the weak of spirit. I glanced out across the ocean knowing that nothing lay between the Atlantic and myself for over two thousand miles. One day I hoped to close that gap, but for now there was no place I would rather be on earth than this white sandy shore. Even in the fiercest storm I could find comfort here, much as my ancestors had, knowing there would be no boats landing to raid the churches of any treasure.
'Is acher ingaith innocht fufuasna fairge findolt
No agor reimm mora minn dondlaechriad us lothlind'
I recited once more one of my favourite pieces of ancient Gaelic text in my head; the sea was indeed the only shelter the island had from foes.
'Sharp is the wind tonight, and white tresses rise on the ocean; I need not fear the calm sea, bringing the fierce warriors of Norway.'
The Vikings never did fully settle in the Uists, unlike other Hebridean islands further north. Their influence remains though, with many hills bearing Viking monikers to this day, adding to the rich tapestry that is the history of my small little spot on this earth. I often try to imagine just what those times were like.
I left North Uist teary-eyed. It looked like the entire island had lined the harbour at Lochmaddy that Saturday morning to wave me off. Well I was heading for the big bad city. The Reverend Halliday had come to the house often during the summer to warn me of the temptations that lay in wait. It was a close-knit, God-fearing place and, every Sunday, the entire population filled the many churches on it. My mother hugged me tight one last time and kissed me on the cheek. She begged me to be good and take care of myself. I promised to write often and I would be home for Christmas. My father nodded one last time, he wasn't much for public displays of affection, I was yet to meet a man on the island who was, well besides Billie Lewis, but that was another story and I didn't quite care for his affections. My two younger sisters and my wee brother waved excitedly as I stepped onto the boat that would take me to the mainland. Oh, how I was going to miss them.
I boarded the ferry the newness of its structure still sparkling in the morning sunshine, the gulls circling above, shrieking. Taking a deep breath of the salty air, I attempted to compose myself for the journey ahead. I watched as the island became smaller with every nautical mile that the boat traversed. It seemed strangely symbolic. I had spent the first eighteen years of my life on the small island and now I was headed out into the big world on my own. I couldn't wait to be surrounded by so many like-minded people. I was excited at the prospect of meeting so many new faces from all different kinds of places and backgrounds. I was scared and full of anticipation all at the same time.
Ten hours later, after a coach journey which I thought would never end, I arrived at a boarding house on the seafront of the outskirts of Edinburgh in a town called Portobello. A robust, matronly woman, wearing an apron and a frown, met me at the door. She favoured me a stern look while instructing me to follow her. After a breathless clip up three flights of stairs carrying my luggage, I was led into an attic room at the top of the house. Before I even had time to get my bearings, I was being instructed in the strict rules that must be adhered to, including the set meal times and the curfew that was in place. Laundry was done on a Tuesday and if I needed to be out later than 10.30pm, I would have to inform Mrs. Ramsay well in advance. There would be no spontaneous late nights. Clearly my parents had done their homework before choosing this accommodation for me. There would be little room for manoeuvre between dinner and 10.30pm. With the rules and regulations duly dispatched Mrs. Ramsay, hair still pinned up perfectly despite the late hour, bid me a curt goodnight and reminded me that breakfast would be 7.30am sharp.
Placing my suitcase onto the hard wooden floor, my arm screaming its relief, I looked around the place I would call home for the foreseeable future. The walls were cream and a single bed dominated the wall opposite the only window. A desk sat beneath the window and a wardrobe and matching chest of drawers stood on the wall opposite the door. The walls were bare the only real splash of colour in the room being provided by the orange bedspread and the patterned curtains. I was happy with my new surroundings, particularly as the window overlooked the sea; it would give me a feeling of tranquillity after a stressful day, or a welcome respite from the books as I studied at the desk. My mother had said it would be good for me to be near the water and I already knew she was right. She was a quiet woman of few words, but the ones she did utter were usually important and often full of wisdom. I set about unpacking my case; I was desperate for a good nights rest after the long day I had spent travelling.
The first week at university took my breath away. On the Monday morning I found myself standing in a very long queue waiting to matriculate along with hundreds of other first year students. Afterwards with nothing else to do that day, I decided to explore the buildings more fully. I had received a brief tour of the history department and the library when I attended my interview back in February. I was very impressed that day, the buildings themselves so full of history. I headed for one of the things I had been so looking forward to seeing - a copy of 'North Uist - Its Archaeology And Topography'
by Erskine Beveridge. I picked out the book from the special section in the library. This book was so rare it wasn't allowed to leave the building. I was holding number 312 of 350. That was the total print run in 1911. I wondered how many were left some seventy-five years later. The book was heavy, with a thick, yellowish orange, hard cover. I sniffed the book, relishing its scent of the past, and then opened it with trembling fingers to read the first penned words of Erskine Beveridge, a man who came to the island as a stranger and went on to become one of its most famous inhabitants.
'North Uist occupies a central position in the Outer Hebrides, that continuous chain of islands which lies off the west coast of Scotland?'
By the end of the week, my head was spinning from one lecture after another; it was so different from school. I was used to a classroom with pupils of all ages, there had been only thirty of us in total. Now I was walking amongst thousands of students, I felt like a lost little girl most of the time, trying to find my way around campus and not seeing a friendly face for hours. I never felt more alone, than at that point in my life. In truth I felt like a total chookter, the name given to country bumpkins, or to people from outside the cities. I knew deep down that I just needed to persevere and be patient and things would come together. Another thing I really missed was listening to music. Back home we had a radio in the kitchen that my mother would listen to during the day. My father banned its use in the evening on the grounds that it was antisocial, but I had loved listening to the chart music that past summer. I needed to get myself a Walkman; unfortunately, I had no spare money to purchase one. That meant I would have to find a job. Doing this would mean going behind my parents' back and starting down that same slippery slope that Reverend Halliday had spoken of that summer.
I was beginning to make friends, firstly with Moira, who also lived at the boarding house. She was from Oban, a Scottish fishing town also on the west coast. We seemed to share a few things in common, both being from small communities and now finding ourselves in a completely new environment. We also had both left home for the first time and, in a quirk of fate, both our fathers were reluctant to allow us any freedom, instead putting us in the care of the strict Mrs. Ramsay. I had also made some more new friends at university, in particular a girl from York, in England, Hannah. She was a year older than me having just 'taken a year out'. That consisted of going to America to work in summer camp, then she travelled when the work was finished. I was in awe of her heading off to do that, she had wonderful stories to tell. Hannah also had a boyfriend who was attending university in Oxford. It was hard to believe she was only a year older than myself, it felt more like ten years. Upon further exploration of Portobello, I discovered a swimming baths. I loved to swim back home but the water of the Atlantic being particularly cold restricted my swimming to the summer months. Now I could swim every morning.
I held off getting a job since I was feeling guilty about going against my parent's wishes. I knew my Father would never give me permission to find work. He would be too concerned that any money I earned would offer me some extra freedom, which could lead to temptation. One day I got off the bus a stop early, wanting to take a short walk along the promenade, before getting back to the boarding house. Taking the first street that led down to the seafront, I hadn't walked down this one before, but knew even with my dreadful sense of direction, I couldn't get lost. All these streets led down to the seafront and I lived on it. Half way down there was a modern building on my right, which broke the continuity of the many tall Victorian houses that lined the street. I crossed over the road for a better look. It was on one level and had only small square windows set high on the outside wall. I thought that it must be pretty dark inside, but I was drawn to the mystery that it exuded. The red front double door had two slim panes of wired glass, which offered only a partial view of what lay inside. There wasn't much to see anyway, just a counter and a red linoleum floor. I stood back and perused the building again, looking for any sign of what it was. To the left of the door on the wall was a brass plaque that had the words Railwaymen's Club
inscribed on it.
I glanced towards the doors as they opened from inside and out stepped a tall dark haired woman, keys in hand. She locked the door then glanced towards me looking expectantly.
"Can I help you?" The dark haired stranger enquired.
I had momentarily lost my powers of speech. She raised her brows to offer encouragement.
"Yes?I'm looking for a job," I stammered. It just came out, I had no idea if there was any kind of job available, or what the work would involve.
She frowned, that wasn't a good sign.
"You don't look old enough to work behind a bar."
It's a bar?
I didn't even know. However, I had come this far and I was old enough.
"I'm eighteen. I just moved here to start university."
"Do you have any bar experience?"
My shoulders slumped. "No?but I could learn," I added hopefully. Everyone had to start somewhere, right?
She pursed her lips and looked me over, "I might have something, but it's not serving behind the bar. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, you collect used glasses and wash them, then stack them on the shelves. You'll be on your feet all night and you won't stop. If you're interested come back tonight after 6:30pm."
I nodded enthusiastically, as I watched her walk off without uttering another word. I made my way to the boarding house with a new spring in my step and butterflies in my stomach. I was so excited at the prospect of working. Unable to contain myself any longer, I broke into a run all the way back to my room.
As I lay on my bed that afternoon sipping from a can of coke, I thought of all the possibilities that this new job could bring me. I didn't care if it meant hard work. I had never had a paid job before, but I grew up having to do a lot of chores. I cycled all over the island some days, running errands. Then I would be helping my Mother at home. I was sure I could do this and I tried not to think of the ramifications of my parents finding out that I had taken a job - especially
one in a bar. Oh, not to mention working on the Sabbath. I'm not sure which would be the least well received by my father, but working in a bar on the Sabbath - that was sure to have him blowing a gasket, we don't even have a ferry service on a Sunday!
I returned to the club that evening after dinner, which was always 6:00pm sharp. If you told Mrs. Ramsay that you would be late, she would plate dinner for you to heat in the microwave. If you didn't inform her, she would put it in the bin to teach you a lesson. I opened the doors and entered the place for the first time, my nasal passageways immediately assaulted with the smell of stale cigarette smoke. It was eerily quiet. I was in a kind of foyer, with no bar in sight. Venturing further inside past the male and female toilets; I had no idea where to go next.
"Hello?" My voice seemed to echo in the empty building. I waited for a reply, but receiving none, I knocked on the door in front of me and waited. The place felt a little creepy and my mind was starting to play tricks on me. The stained yellowing walls, which I assumed were once white, held testament to the second favourite pastime in this place, the stale smell of beer and smoke mixed together to form a nauseating scent. There was a double door to my right, but the inside was in total darkness, so I went down to my left, sighing with relief when I saw a lit bar inside. I entered, but the place was empty. Deep red vinyl seats lined the walls along with well-used tables and chairs. The hall was long and narrow, with wood panelling half way up the walls, then cream paint that was screaming out for a new coat. There was a pool table at the far end and two bandits at the top. A hatch on the wall was where the alcohol was served. I walked over to the bar hoping to find someone there. It was empty so I rang the bell for service.
"Be with you in a minute, I'm in the cellar!"
The voice came from the door at the end of the hall. It sounded like the woman from earlier. I breathed a sigh of relief and waited patiently at the bar.
"Sorry about the wait, I was changing the lager?oh, it's you. I wondered if you would be back." She took a moment to look me over, "So you want the job?"
I nodded my head, then remembered to speak, "Yes."
"Alright, wait there." She turned to a sink behind the bar and washed her hands, before drying them and coming back over to the counter. "I'm Toni, by the way?you are?"
She held out her hand and I shook it. "Shona."
"Pleased to meet you, Shona."
Toni then showed me round the premises, which included a TV and games room, the small hall I had first ventured into and then a large square hall which was the main room in the building and the one currently in darkness. Toni explained to me that it wasn't used on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The place was at it busiest over the weekend, especially Saturday and Sunday. She then took me behind the bar to a room at the back with another hatch; this is where I would be stacking the trays of glasses and washing them in the sinks. There was nothing complicated about the set up, it was more a case of keeping up with demand when the place was busy.
"So your hours are 7pm till 11pm, Friday and Sunday, and 7pm till 11:30 pm, on Saturday."
"I have a curfew," I blurted out. I hadn't taken into consideration the late hours.
"Are you sure you're eighteen?" Toni enquired sceptically.
"Yes, really I am. Its just my parents found me a boarding house to stay in, and well, the rules are strict." I hastily produced my matriculation card as proof.
"What's the curfew?" She sounded exasperated.
"11:00 pm at weekends. The house isn't far from here, I could be home in five minutes!" I really wanted the job and I could feel it slipping away from me.
She shook her head, "It won't work; I need you later on a Saturday. Sometimes we have functions and are open until 1:00 am."
"I can apply for a late night pass for Saturdays, but the latest I'm allowed is midnight." I added hastily, hoping to change her mind.
Just then her first customer of the night came in.
"Give me a moment, I need to think about this."
She went off to serve the gentleman, who I assumed to be a regular as they shared stories about the weekend in the club. I waited anxiously with my fingers crossed behind my back. I really wanted this job, it had suddenly become very important to me. In the short time I had been away from home I had begun to realise just how little freedom I was being given, even miles away from my fathers ever watchful gaze.
She turned to face me; I knew I was holding my breath and biting my bottom lip.
"Alright, I'll tell you what. I can let you finish at 10:50 pm on Fridays and Sundays that will give you enough time to get home before your curfew. On Saturdays, you get your pass and when we have a function, you will be home for midnight?we don't want you turning into a pumpkin." She winked and I let out the breath I had been holding.
"That's great, I won't let you down, I promise." A large smile crept across my face and I was practically jumping with excitement.
She laughed, "You haven't even asked how much I'm paying you yet. Its not a lot you know. The job only pays £3 an hour. You can keep any tips you get."
"Great." I readily agreed, I had no idea what was a good rate of pay for the job, but I was already calculating how many hours I would need to work to get a Sony Walkman.
"You're welcome to hang around for a wee while."
"Sure, that would be good."
"What would you like to drink then?it's on the house."
"Oh, I don't drink." I could feel the blush rising in my cheeks.
She laughed lightly again. "Don't worry, you don't have to drink alcohol to work in the bar. A juice?"
I nodded, "Lime and soda please."
She poured my drink then switched on the tape recorder she had behind the bar, I was in heaven as I stood there watching Toni work for the next hour, before heading to the boarding house to study.
The rest of the week took on a new emphasis for me, in fact life had in general. I walked a little taller around campus, or at least it felt like I did. I also felt a little more confident. I was gradually getting to know some of the other students who were doing the same degree I was. Going to lunch at the refectory with them and studying in the library. Helping each other find references then standing around the photocopier for an hour. I was settling into the routine of university life, the only thing that was missing was a Sony Walkman for my bus journeys to and from campus and the quiet nights in my small room in the attic overlooking the sea.
When Friday came I found that I was really looking forward to my first night at work. Dressed in a skirt and blouse, as Toni had requested, saying that personally she would be happy to have her bar staff wearing what they felt comfortable in, but the committee had established a dress code for weekends, I arrived at the club fifteen minutes early to give myself time to settle in. Toni introduced me to the two other bar staff on for that evening. Eddie, who was her assistant manager and Cath, who worked part time. After that, it was quite a busy night. I kept up with the demand and felt quite pleased with myself by the end of the night, though my feet did hurt. Tomorrow I would be wearing loafers, not a two-inch heel!
At 10:50pm, I grabbed my jacket said goodnight to Eddie and Cath and headed quickly for the door. I had no time to look for Toni, as I didn't want to be late. As I hurried towards the front door of the club, Toni was holding it open with a smile on her face.
"C'mon, I'll give you a lift."
I was about to protest, saying that it wasn't far, but Toni cut me off.
"I won't have you walking home alone. Normally you would share the staff taxi, it's standard practice to make sure you get home safely."
I nodded and we walked around the back of the building to the car park. Toni opened the door to a red Nova hatchback then proceeded to ease her tall frame into the car. It was humorous watching her long legs wend their way into position. She put the car into reverse and, in a manoeuvre that would make a rally driver proud, she had us out of the car park and speeding along to my street. I'm still not sure that we exited the car park using all four wheels.
Two minutes later we were outside the boarding house. Toni had grown up in the area and knew it like the back of her hand.
"How did you find tonight?" she enquired, pulling on the handbrake.
"It was good, just a little tiring."
Toni grinned, "Friday is the easy night, you'll barely have time to catch your breath tomorrow."
I gave her a shocked look and she winked. "Goodnight, Shona."
"Night, Toni, I'll see you tomorrow. Thanks for the lift. " I really hoped she was kidding about tonight being easy.
The bad news, as I found out the following night, was that she wasn't. It was 11:30pm and I was standing in the ladies toilet in front of the hand dryer attempting to dry off the front of my shirt just above my waist. Over the course of the evening, it had becoming sodden wet from the water and alcohol spilling from the trays full of dirty, then clean glasses. My feet were red raw, they hurt so much and my arms ached from the constant motion of lifting, carrying, washing and stacking. I didn't think the skin on my hands would ever recover it was so pruned. I held my shirt out just a few moments longer, it was white cotton, or at least it had been when I put it on that evening. It was now stained at the front and I feared it might turn yellow with the amount of cigarette smoke that was in the air. I walked slowly back towards the bar. The clearing up was over, and the bar staff had taken the opportunity to relax behind the closed shutters and enjoy a drink. Toni had poured me a lime and soda while I was gone.
"Here sit on that crate and relax for a few minutes, then I'll drive you home."
I thanked her for the drink and gladly plonked my tired body down, anything to take the weight off my feet.
"You'll be glad to hear, that's as busy as it gets." Toni informed me.
I nodded my reply, feeling kind of shell-shocked. I would be washing glasses in my sleep, I was sure of it.
"Will you be coming back tomorrow?," Eddie asked. I thought I detected a hint of fear in his voice. If my quitting meant the bar staff had to do the glasses as well, I could understand where he was coming from.
With a wan smile on my face I answered in the affirmative. Eddie clapped me on the back affectionately and Cath told me I must be mad.
"C'mon, lets get you home. I'll be back in ten minutes, guys."
Once again, Toni drove me home and I endured two minutes at break neck speeds. She really did like to throw that car around.
"You did a good job tonight. The last glass washer used to hide out in the toilets smoking cigarettes. When the shelves started getting low on glasses we had to go find her."
"Did she quit?"
"No, I had to sack her. One night we couldn't find her anywhere so I went out back, just in case she was there. I found her in a compromising position with one of the club members, seems she had started her own business and was offering extras that weren't on the list in the bar."
I stared at Toni blankly, not quite able to comprehend what she was saying, but I knew it wasn't good, whatever this woman had been doing. Then a light bulb went on in my head.
"Oh?Ohhh." I blushed again, but I wasn't sure Toni could notice it in the dark.
She laughed lightly, "Night, Shona."
Maybe Toni could see in the dark. "Night, Toni, thanks again for driving me home."
"You're welcome," and with a squeal of tyres, she was off.
The following night was going fine until I removed a glass from a table. Before I even made it to the hatch a woman with a large blonde bun came shrieking in my direction. Toni saved the day. She walked towards me, plucked a glass from my tray that had lemon slices in it, and a horrendous shade of pink lipstick coating the lip of the glass. She promptly returned the glass to the shrieking blonde. I had come to hate lipstick in the three nights I had been washing glasses, it was so difficult to remove! The next time I entered through the bar to wash glasses Toni followed me and explained that some of the customers had their quirks. That woman liked to use the same glass for the entire evening, disgusting though it was, with the lipstick all over it. They just put her glass in the bin at the end of the night, it usually contained around ten slices of lemon and a stick of lipstick.
"We refuse to have it anywhere near the bar though, we put her gin and tonic in a fresh glass and she pours it into her old one. You'll get used to the eccentricities. Some of them have been coming here so long they kind of think they own the place." She gave me a wink and a smile and went back to serving the thirsty customers. I really liked Toni; she was great.
My reprieve was short lived when half way through the evening an older gentleman who had definitely had too much to drink, decided to grab my bottom as I squeezed between two tables. There was nothing subtle about it, it was a two handed grab which made me scream and drop a tray full of glasses. They smashed onto the floor and a cheer went up, along with a few catcalls. I wanted to burst into tears, but then Toni the tornado arrived on the scene with a brush and shovel.
"I'll be back to help in a minute." She handed me the brush and shovel, then stormed towards the man who had grabbed me.
"Right, Keith, up you get, your night's over."
"Awww, c'mon, Toni, I was just having fun."
"You know the rules, no groping the staff. If you had tried that with Cath, she would have knocked you out, you're getting off lightly."
Toni escorted Keith out the door, informing him he would have to behave himself or would be banned for a while. She returned and helped me finish clearing up the broken glass.
"C'mon I'll show you where all the cleaning stuff is kept."
We went to a room towards the back of the foyer, which had a cupboard full of cleaning equipment.
"Are you alright?" Toni enquired, gently placing a hand on my shoulder. Her eyes searching out mine, looking for answers.
"Yes, just a bit shaken." I gave a tremulous smile, hoping to hide just how shaken up I was.
"I'm sorry that happened, Keith just seems to lose the plot now and then. I'll do my best to make sure it doesn't happen again."
"I'm just not used to that kind of thing."
"I know?well, I can tell anyway. Look, he's just a big daft idiot. He's quite harmless really, well apart from the occasional grope. He usually gets slapped round the head every so often for pulling that kind of stunt with the women in here. He knows enough to know better though. I just don't want you to think that kind of thing happens often around here."
"I won't, I promise." I paused, thinking about the breakages. "You can take the money for the broken glasses from my wages."
"Are you serious? We should be paying you extra for having to put up with that crap." Toni smiled. "The breakages don't come out of your wages, it's just an occupational hazard."
I got my first wage packet that night, £37.50. I would save £30 and spend what was left as a treat. This meant that after only three weeks working I could buy my Walkman and even get some tapes for it. I had taken to looking in the store near campus that sold Walkman's. I already knew exactly what I wanted. It cost £60, had Dolby sound, an AM/FM radio and auto rewind. It also had a counter-inertial flywheel, which sounded really cool, but I had no idea what that was. I could purchase four tapes from the top forty album chart and this was proving to be a bigger problem. I definitely wanted The Bangles - Different Ligh
t and The Police- Every Breath You Take. (The Singles)
, but there were so many others to choose from. I was like a kid in a sweetie shop every time I went to a record store.
Three weeks later and life was really good. I had made all my purchases and my bus rides were now something to look forward to. The music made all the difference. I was studying hard for my first exams, which would be before the Christmas break and that had jogged my memory that I was forgetting something very important. I was going home for Christmas, which meant I wouldn't be available to work. I hadn't thought of that when I took the job. I was popping into the club to see Toni later that evening as I had forgotten to pick up my wages the night before. She would have them waiting behind the bar for me, but I wasn't looking forward to informing her of my oversight. I had written a letter to my parents asking if I could cut my holiday time home down to two weeks instead of three, due to extra study. I really wasn't expecting a positive reply, but I had to at least try to be available for work.
I walked from the boarding house to the club in the pouring rain. I only got to listen to Walk Like An Egyptian
and part of Standing in the Hallway
by The Bangles
, before I arrived. I went straight into the small hall. It was so unlike the first Monday night I had entered this place; yet, the feeling of emptiness was still prevalent. It seemed like the soul of the building was missing on these quiet nights. It only came alive at the weekend, oh and at the Wednesday night bingo, which I had yet to see. The bar was empty, so I guessed Toni was through the back getting bottles from the cellar or changing a beer barrel. Taking a seat near the bar I waited in the cold hall, that's when I heard raised voices and a door slamming. Then the door behind the bar opened, Toni entered, closed the door, then pressed her head against it before letting out a curse. She turned and saw me looking at her. I wasn't sure what to say. Back home you kept quiet and out of everyone else's business.
"Guess you heard some of that, huh?"
"Not really, I just heard some raised voices?then you cursed."
Toni chuckled, "Sorry about the language."
This didn't seem like a good time to be telling Toni about my holidays, but I knew I had to do it soon. I decided to stick around for a bit.
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah, it's a common occurrence round here. Too many cooks, they want to tell me how to run the bar, I tell them it's not the best way; voices get raised?" Toni shrugged "C'mon round this side, you don't have to hang out with the riff raff."
"The bars empty." Lord, I could be so literal at times. I chided myself for my naivety.
"Yeah, but the riff raff will be here shortly." Toni pulled a funny face that made me laugh.
I went behind the bar and removed my jacket. Grabbing one of the empty crates from the cupboard, I sat down. Toni poured me a juice and threw me a packet of cheese and onion crisps. I watched as she rang the sale up on the till and paid for the goods with money from a jar on a shelf above.
"I could pay."
She waved my offer away. "I get drinks bought for me all the time and I will never get round to drinking them. I used to keep the drinks in the till but the money got wet."
"Huh? Oh, get it." I laughed. I really was slow on the uptake.
"Don't worry. You get used to the bar humour, eventually. Especially after you hear the same joke over a hundred times."
Toni leaned her long frame on the bar; sipping her coke she asked, "Tell me a bit about yourself, Shona?"
"Well, I'm from North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. I came here to study history at University. I have two younger sisters and a little brother. My Mother looks after the family and my Father is a peat farmer. There were only thirty kids altogether at my school, so moving to the city has taken a bit of getting used to. I've made some friends at university, so things are getting easier and, despite the job here being tough, I like working."
Toni smiled, I really liked her smile. "So how come you ended up in Mrs. Ramsay's boarding house?"
"My parents, well the entire island if truth be told, were really concerned about me moving to the city. The Reverend was always coming to the house and warning my parents about the perils of the big city. He also said he knew of a God fearing woman who ran a reputable establishment."
"Mrs. Ramsay?" Toni clarified, pulling a scary face.
"Yes, Mrs. Ramsay. So, they pay for my room and my meals and I have to abide by her rules. She boards four other girls as well, basically all there for the same reason; their parents are worried about them being away from home. So between the curfew and the lack of money that I have, or at least had, I have no option but to behave, at least that was their thinking."
"So they don't know you're working?"
I shook my head in the negative. "No, they have no idea. You aren't going to sack me are you?" I was suddenly concerned that my revelation could lose me my job.
"Of course not. Shona, you're eighteen. You can make all your own decisions." A wry smile appeared on her face, "So you got a job to get some financial independence?"
"Sort of, I got a job because I wanted to listen to music. I wanted to buy a Walkman. Now I have one, I'm not sure what I'm going to do next. Maybe buy some clothes. I want to buy Christmas presents, but then I would have to explain where I got the money." I shrugged, not quite sure what else to say.
"Good for you, Shona."
I swallowed hard and plucked up the courage to bring up the holidays, it was now or never. "Speaking of Christmas, Toni, I forgot to mention that I'm expected home for the holidays."
"How long for?" Toni asked with a hint of exasperation in her voice.
"Three weeks, I've written to my parents and asked them to let me stay here another week, but I don't think they will."
"Ahhh?Christmas is a really busy time Shona." Toni rubbed her hand over her forehead. "We'll just have to manage without you. I'll try and get someone to fill in."
"So I can keep my job?" I asked eagerly.
"Sure, I suppose it will be the same for Easter and the summer, that's assuming you want to work here that long?'
"Yes, I'll be expected home."
"It's alright, we'll work around it. Good glass washers are hard to find."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "So what about you?"
"Me?" Toni looked puzzled.
"I told you a bit about me, what about you?"
"Hmmm, lets see. I'm twenty-four. Went to the local high school, which had around 1,500
students when I was there." Toni smiled as she emphasised the differences in the size of our school populations. "You already know I grew up around here. I've been working in this bar since I was eighteen, not as the manager, my first job was as a part time bartender while I was at college."
"What did you study?"
Toni shook her head. "Not telling."
"Oh come on, that's not fair."
Toni laughed, "So you want to learn what goes on behind the bar?"
"Yes, that would be great." I didn't even notice how deftly she changed the subject till later.
"Next customer that comes up, you can pour their drink, I'll make a bar tender out of you by the end of the evening."
"Aren't you worried that if you teach me, I'll leave and get a job somewhere else?" I teased.
Toni laughed, "And who is going to employ you with your curfew?"
"Good point." We both laughed.
After finishing up at the university on the Friday, I didn't actually travel home for Christmas until the Monday; this meant I was able to work the weekend at the club. I was really excited at the prospect of seeing my family and friends again. The boat trip back to the island was incredibly cold; the barren landscape in the winter months open to the harshness of the Atlantic. It was like being on the edge of the world, as the bitter winds, rain and snow, battered down on the island for most of the winter. The city was certainly warmer than home at this time of year.
My Father was there to meet me when the boat docked. After a perfunctory greeting he maintained a stony silence on the short trip back to the family home. That wasn't unusual, but considering I hadn't spoken to him since September, I had a bad feeling about it.
I was greeted enthusiastically by my siblings and my Mother then, after a late dinner, my dad dropped the bombshell I had been dreading. He needed to have a talk with me. It turned out that Mrs. Ramsay had sent him a letter voicing her concerns that I was staying out late at the weekends and being dropped off by a red car just before my curfew.
"Do you have a boyfriend in the city?" My father enquired in a most serious tone.
"No Father, I don't." I was telling him the truth. "The red car belongs to Toni?"
His hand thundered down onto the kitchen table so fast I jumped at the impact. "Who is Tony?" He demanded.
"Antonia is a friend and she gives me a lift home to make sure I get there safely."
"Are you out drinking on these nights?"
"No, Father. I don't drink and I don't have a boyfriend."
"Something isn't right here, Shona, what are you not telling me?"
I sat in silence, I just couldn't lie to him, but I couldn't tell him the truth either.
"Are you doing anything illegal?"
"No, Father." Again it was the truth, I was doing something he would certainly not approve of, but it was not illegal.
"I will get to the bottom of this, Shona." He warned, pointedly holding my gaze to emphasise the sincerity of his words.
He left me sitting at the table, I was miserable. I knew the rest of my visit home would be marred by Mrs. Ramsay's revelations and my father would no doubt get the Reverend Halliday involved as well. It was in that moment that I realised how much control my father continued to have over my life. I wanted to get out of that boarding house, but I had no idea how I was going to do that. I had never defied my Father's wishes and I wasn't sure I had the strength to start now.
The following day found me in the kitchen helping my Mother with lunch.
"He isn't going to let this go, Shona." My Mother said quietly.
"I know, but I can't stop living my life, Mum. Everything I've told him is the truth, I'm not seeing anyone, I don't drink. I take my studies seriously, and I'm not staying in that boarding house next year."
"He won't allow that, Shona," She warned.
"I need some control over my own life, Mum. He has to let go at some point. He has to trust me." I desperately wanted her to understand.
"Think of your sisters and brother back here, if you defy him, what chance do they have?" Her tone was pleading, tugging at my heartstrings.
"That's not fair, Mum." Tears welled in my eyes. I couldn't take a guilt trip right at that moment.
"I know, Shona, I know. I'm sorry, love." She hugged me and I really needed to be hugged in that moment.
"I'll stay for the rest of the academic year, but next year I can't do this again. I have to live somewhere else."
I was allowed to return a few days early to prepare for my second term at uni. That meant I could work the weekend at the club. In truth though, I hated the boarding house, I enjoyed my time in the club and my days at university. I felt like a bird that had been let out of the cage at those times. As the second term progressed I spent more time with Toni, I had taken to going to the club on Monday evenings and just hanging out with her. She was a lot of fun and a great listener. I had told her about Mrs. Ramsay's letter to my Father, she laughed about the boyfriend bit then called Mrs. Ramsay something very uncomplimentary. I was a little stunned to find myself agreeing, though I wasn't sure I would ever use that word personally. Toni could have quite a colourful vocabulary at times.
I found myself once again making the long trip home and thought back to the term I had just spent in Edinburgh. My life had settled into a comfortable routine. From Christmas to Easter there were no significant events. My studies were going well, my results from the tests just before Christmas had exceeded my own expectations. I was so nervous waiting for those to be posted on the board at university. I was in the top ten percent, so things were going well.
There had been a couple of incidents that had left me feeling confused and they had both occurred at the Railwaymen's
club. The first had been when a fight broke out in the small hall one Saturday night. I had gone into the hall to collect glasses just as an argument broke out down at the pool table. Within seconds the place erupted. Tables were being toppled and drinks spilled as two men grappled with each other. I stood frozen to the spot, unsure what to do. I heard Toni instruct Cath to call the police as she literally leapt the bar counter and hit the wooden floor running?straight into the fray. I was scared, but as I watched Toni get involved, I became more terrified that she would get hurt. By the time she reached the fight, there were now three men involved; one of them was using his pool cue as a weapon. I watched horrified as Toni headed straight for him. She ducked the first swing, but was caught by a second blow before grabbing the cue and wrestling it from him. From then on it was all over really quickly, with the police arriving just after the main protagonist had been subdued, principally by Toni.
The man who had been swinging the pool cue was taken away by the police to, I assume, cool off in the cells. I watched as Toni blew out a breath and swept her long hair back from her face. It was then I noticed the red mark and swelling beneath her left eye. I winced in sympathy, it must have hurt.
"Show's over, folks, lets get back to enjoying your night out." Toni declared calmly, as she ushered the crowd that had gathered, back towards the main hall.
After that it was business as usual, the way Toni acted you wouldn't guess she had jumped into a fight, unless you looked at her swollen eye. For that she just threw some ice into a cash bag and held it against the injury to reduce the swelling, inbetween serving customers.
As we sat behind the closed bar at the end of the night, catching our breath, Toni had declared, "Some night, huh!"
Something in her tone, along with the grin and the glint in her eye, told me she had enjoyed it immensely. What a woman. When she gave me a lift home twenty minutes later, I told her she shouldn't put herself in danger like that. She just laughed and said it was part of the job. I then expressed my concerns about her safety; she gave me the most beautiful smile and a quick hug. When she whispered "thanks for caring"
in my ear, I thought my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. Toni looked very roguish with her newly blackened eye.
The second incident took place on a Saturday night. It was a cabaret night, where tickets had been sold for a band that would be playing. The band was really good. They played a mix of music, some chart and some classics. Everyone was enjoying the night. When they stopped for a break, the lead singer spent the entire time at the bar, chatting up Toni. She seemed to be enjoying the attention and flirting back with him. I spent the rest of the night feeling really subdued. The band didn't sound so good anymore; in fact the lead singer had gone from good to rotten in the space of thirty minutes, at least in my opinion.
It was a night with a late licence, but at 11:50 pm Toni whisked me home at great speed, well it was just the usual speed for her. As I opened the door to get out of her car, she stopped me, by pressing her hand gently onto my shoulder.
"Things aren't always what they seem, Shona," she said with a look of the utmost sincerity on her face. "There's a lot of front involved in bar work." She dipped her head a little to hold my gaze. I nodded my understanding. She was telling me that sometimes she had to act a certain way around people. I could understand that, but I was confused as to why I was so affected by it.
She patted my leg and smiled. "Get some rest. You'll be doing it all again tomorrow."
I groaned my goodnight and she treated me to her wonderful laugh. I was really going to miss Toni when I went home for Easter.
As the ferry got closer to the island, I realised that I was dreading facing my father again. I knew he would have received another letter from Mrs. Ramsay. I assumed it would say the same as before. Boy, was I wrong.
"You will cease working in that establishment. I forbid you to continue to work in that den of drunken debauchery. On a Sunday of all days! It is a day of rest! You heed my warning, Shona, nothing good can come of this." The spittle flew from his mouth; he was absolutely enraged by my actions.
"Why, Shona? Why have you done this? Have I not provided enough for you? You eat well; all of your books have been supplied along with a travel pass. Mrs. Ramsay makes sure you receive your £10 allowance at the start of the week. What need could you possibly have more?" His face was a deep read, the veins in his neck bulging, I truly feared for his wellbeing in that moment.
For the first time in my life I found a voice and spoke back to him. "I have no freedom. I have no independence. You are controlling me even when I'm miles away from home. You tried to make sure I had little to no choices by making me live in a boarding house that is as strict as any convent and you limited my budget. I barely had enough for lunch each week. Now you have Mrs. Ramsay spying on me. You don't trust me!" I had never argued with my father before. My heart was pounding so hard I thought I might faint.
"And I have good cause! Look what you have done. Working in a public house where you can be ogled by drunken men." He stood quickly from his chair leaning his arms on the table, his pose threatening as it loomed over me.
"I'm not giving up my job and I'm not staying in the boarding house at the end of this academic year." I had to be strong. I knew I had to make a stand; it was time.
"You will not defy me." My father's voice was low and stern, "Go to your room, this matter is not up for discussion."
I went to my room and sobbed, I wanted to leave immediately and go back to the city. I needed to think and for that I needed a clear head. I waited until my father went out, so that I could go for a walk down to the shore. I looked out towards the sea, so tranquil today. The fresh air was incredible after being in the city. I had never been able to fully appreciate its clean scent before. The wild flowers were in full bloom on the Machair, yet I was more miserable than I could ever recall being before. As I sat there in the late afternoon, with the salty air whipping through my blonde locks, I knew. I knew in that moment that I had come to a crossroads in my young life. I had to make a stand, if I didn't do it now; it would be the same next year or the year after that. It was inevitable. I already knew that my future lay away from the island. My father could not stop me attending university. He only made a small contribution to my expenses. My university fees were paid directly by the government and I had handed my grant cheque over to my father, but it was in my name. I could do it; I knew I could do it without him. He may never speak to me again, but I could do it. I would stay in the city during the summer and get a job if I had to. I would miss my family terribly, but I had to do this for me. It was my future at stake.
The following day, Reverend Halliday came to visit, I assumed at the request of my father.
"Can you not see the problems you are causing, lass? Your father has expressed deep concern over the direction your life is going in. He has asked me to offer you some guidance. I must say, Shona; I was very dismayed to hear that you had chosen to work on the day of the Sabbath, in a public house of all the places, lass. Surely you could find some work elsewhere? If you were to do that, I'm sure you and your father could reach a compromise."
I thought it sounded reasonable. It was something that I could do and perhaps then my father would be willing to be more flexible. I would miss the club a lot, but it would be a sacrifice worth making. That just left the issue of my accommodation for next year.
"What of my living arrangements, Reverend Halliday? Has my father spoken to you about them?"
"I'm sorry, lass, but on that issue he will not yield. Having you stay at Mrs. Ramsay's establishment gives him tremendous peace of mind."
"But it's so stifling, Reverend. I want to have more freedom. I need for him to trust me. To allow me the space that I require to grow and mature."
"He won't change his mind on this, Shona, you must respect your father's wishes. I'll tell your father that you'll be leaving your current job and that will put an end to this unsavoury business." He looked at me, waiting for my agreement.
I shook my head negatively, "I'm sorry, Reverend Halliday, but I won't be staying at the boarding house for my second year." I was shaking like a leaf, but I couldn't lie. I wouldn't agree to the terms that my father was offering.
"You know he won't permit it?" he said gravely.
"I know." I dropped my head in resignation.
"Then I urge you to at least give up your current job. A public house is no place for a young girl to be working. It is full of temptation."
" I don't drink alcohol, Reverend and I have never gone on a date with anyone since moving to the city. I have been working in the club almost the entire time I've been away from home. Many of my peers at university drink alcohol and date. That's how they choose to spend their weekends, whilst I'm too busy working to even think about things like that."
"I'll pray for you, Shona, that the lord will keep you safe and grant you the wisdom to make the right choices. I'll pray for your father too, so that the lord may give him the strength to cope with your decisions."
"Thank you, Reverend Halliday," I replied graciously. The man may have been tremendously old fashioned, but he was a kind soul.
The rest of my holiday was spent enduring long awkward silences. My father refused to talk to me and I would find him occasionally just staring at me, a look of barely disguised loathing on his face. He just seemed to quietly seethe in my presence. I enjoyed the days, spending time with my sisters and brother. My mother carried on as though nothing were wrong, but as soon as my father came home in the evening the entire mood of the house changed drastically, and so it continued until I left to return to Edinburgh.
Upon my return to the city I had decided that, for the time being, I would continue to abide by Mrs. Ramsay's house rules. I would act as if nothing had changed. I only had a few weeks left there anyway. I would be polite in her presence, despite her spying on me. I also returned with a definite plan of action. I would open a bank account and put my savings into it, they were currently under my mattress, which had seemed like a good idea at the time, now I wasn't so sure. I would be able to use them for a deposit on a flat for my second year at college. When I picked up my grant cheque at the beginning of each term I would deposit it into my own account and use it for rent money. I could live of my earnings from the club; they would pay for my food and bills. It would be tight, but I could do it, especially if I could find a full-time job for the summer.
On the Monday after I got back, I took my usual trip to the club. I was really looking forward to catching up with Toni. I had seen her that weekend, but it just wasn't the same, we barely got a spare minute to chat.
I arrived about 7:30 pm to find Toni was bottling up.
"Back in a minute, I've got to get another crate of pilsner from the cellar."
"Is there anything I can do?"
Toni led me to the cupboard at the back of the bar.
"Open these bottles of whisky, use that funnel and pour them into that bigger bottle there." She pointed to the large bottle that usually sat upside down on the optic.
I looked at the bottles in question, they were labelled Queen Anne
, and the bigger empty bottle was labelled Bells Whisky
I did as I was asked, but I couldn't help but be curious about what I was doing.
"Is it legal to change the labelling of the whisky?" I enquired, hoping to sound nonchalant.
Toni gave me a wry look, dipped her head and seemed to be making a decision.
"Okay, these brand's of whisky are both blends." She pointed to the bottles in front of me. "In truth all blends taste pretty similar, particularly these two brands. The main difference being that one is much cheaper than the other. They also both have the same alcohol content, so will produce the same effect in the drinker."
She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me a little closer.
"Now this part is important, you can do this with a blended whisky, but never with a malt. Malt's have a distinct flavour and a connoisseur
will know immediately if you have switched one brand for another. Their flavour and colour is very distinct. Single malt is just that, one distilled whisky. A blend is a combination of more than one.
"So why not just put the Queen Anne
up on the optic?"
"Because people want what they are used to. They don't want to be trying new brands. It's kind of like buying Heinz
beans in the supermarket. You could go for the cheaper supermarket brand, but most folk will stick with the Heinz
beans. They believe the taste and quality of the product is better. If I put up anything else, I will have nothing but complaints until the Bells
bottle goes back up."
"I get it, I think." Though I was sceptical at the practice of hoodwinking the patrons.
"Look, it's not strictly legal, but in the general scheme of things, with the amount of fiddling and cooking of the books that goes on around here, its pretty low down the list of crimes."
I just stared blankly at Toni. I had no idea what other crimes could be going on. She winked at me and offered an explanation.
"You should pop in here on a Wednesday evening. The committee empties the bandits, then spend the next few days paying for their drinks with fifty pence pieces." She laughed. "They must think the bar staff are too dim to work out where they get them from."
"Really?" I must have been staring wide-eyed. The thought of the men on the committee taking money from the fruit machines was perplexing. The idea of the gambling machines being there in the first place was difficult enough to get my head round, but stealing the proceeds from the gambling? That was quite a shock.
"Don't worry about it, I think they just see it as a perk of getting onto the committee. There must be some benefits otherwise why else would so many of these retired guys be waiting to join?"
I shrugged, I had no idea why, but if they were lining their pockets, well, I suppose it could be considered a perk.
Toni had her head practically inside one of the fridges as she continued to restock the shelves. "Actually, I'm going to be down one bar person on Wednesday, if you're not too busy, you could fill in for the night." She brought her head back from behind the fridge door, "What do you think, could you handle a full night behind the bar?" She grinned at me.
"Yes! I could, I'm sure I could." I jumped at the opportunity.
"Don't sweat it, I wouldn't ask if I didn't already know for certain that you could handle it. You practically work here for free on Monday nights."
"I can't wait!" I was delighted, I really wanted to work the bar in truth, but I knew that there weren't any vacancies. This would be a great experience, certainly more fun than collecting and washing glasses for an entire evening.
Toni stood up and wiped her palms on her jeans. "Well, at least that seems to have put a smile on your face. What's up anyway? You've had a face like a wet weekend for the last three nights."
I sighed, "It's a long story."
Toni shrugged, 'If ever I had the time to listen it's a Monday night, come on spill it."
I sighed deeply, "My father knows I'm working here and he seriously disapproves. Mrs. Ramsay somehow found out and wrote to tell him."
Toni made an ouch
"Yes, I know, it wasn't pretty. Anyway, he demanded that I quit immediately. I won't tell you what he called the club.'
She laughed, "That's alright, I'm sure its been called a lot worse than whatever your dad came up with."
I chuckled, "Actually, I think I've heard it being called worse on these very premises," I looked directly at Toni, "it was by you."
She burst out laughing, "You know, Shona, I've seen such a change in you these past few months. It's really great to see you coming out of your shell. I was worried when you first came here that you would be running back to the island within a month, but you're still here, coping extremely well and you have a whole new confidence about you. All of that without losing the essence of who you are."
I let out a sob then, Toni's words meant a lot to me, but they also reminded me of what I had just lost and I wasn't sure if I would ever get any of it back.
She hugged me close. "Shhh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
I shook my head, trying to clear it. "I disobeyed my father's wishes and now he won't even acknowledge that I exist. Reverend Halliday tried to mediate between us, but neither my father nor myself would budge on the issue of my accommodation. We had reached a compromise over the job issue, I'm sorry Toni, but I had agreed to give up working here and find a more respectable job. Well one that my father approved of anyway."
Toni gently wiped away my tears with her thumbs and looked directly at me. "You don't have to apologise for anything. I would have understood your reasons and accepted them. Look, Shona, if you need to stop working here because it's making your family life miserable, you should do it."
"It's a moot point now really. I was adamant that I wouldn't renew my tenancy with Mrs. Ramsay and my father insisted that I did. He became very angry. It wasn't up for discussion, I either did what he wanted or, I'm not even sure what. He just stopped talking to me. He acted like I didn't exist any more."
"What about your mum?"
"My mother is acting as if nothing happened. I don't think she knows what to do."
"What are you going to do?" She enquired gently.
"I'm going to find a room to rent in a flat, either for after the summer or maybe even for the start of it. I'm not sure if I'll be at all welcome at home, with my father anyway. The prospect of finding a full-time job for the summer seems like a really good idea, it means I could save some money for when I can't work as much."
"If you stay here for the summer, obviously you will have your weekend job. I don't think it would be too difficult to find something for during the week. There are plenty of pubs around here, always looking for bar staff. You could pick up another job quite easily."
Toni's words cheered me and I found myself determined to learn as much about bar work as Toni was willing to teach me.
Wednesday night was interesting. Toni had told me that it was an unusual night behind the bar because there would be a rush and then nothing to do for a while, then another rush. She also told me I wouldn't be serving a lot of alcohol. Sure enough the main hall was almost full by 7:00 pm and most of the ladies were drinking soft drinks. Few had ordered alcohol. The bingo machine was set up waiting for the men in charge to finish selling the books. I heard the words "eyes down for your first number"
and the entire place went silent. I gave Toni a surprised look and she muffled a laugh and stepped into the cupboard, beckoning me to follow her.
"Don't make me laugh," she whispered. "We have to be as quiet as possible otherwise they start complaining they can't hear the numbers, then I have a mini riot on my hands."
"Okay. Shall I go collect some glasses?"
Toni shook her head, "If you do that they start throwing you dirty looks." I frowned, so Toni explained further. "You disrupt their concentration when you move around the room. They take their bingo very seriously."
We were both standing in the cupboard shaking with suppressed laughter. Toni let out an undignified snort and ran to the cellar, where I suspected she laughed heartily. It really was a strange situation.
The rest of the evening followed a similar pattern and when the last house was called the entire hall emptied in less than five minutes.
"Now this is the part of Wednesdays that I love," Toni stated, "No one hangs around in there finishing off their drinks. They are here for the bingo, not the alcohol. You scoot around and put the dirty glasses on the bar, I'll start washing."
I went into the main hall and started collecting the glasses. I heard Toni shout through the hatch into the small hall, and it made me smile.
"Time gentlemen, please!"
Then she added, "Do your talking while you're walking."
If you were behind the bar when she called this, you could hear the one she added under her breath, but it wasn't really repeatable and certainly wasn't for the ears of the patrons!
Toni and I, worked quickly to finish up behind the bar, making small talk as we went.
"So how did you find tonight?" Toni enquired between plunging the dirty glasses onto the brushes to clean them.
"I really enjoyed it. It's a lot more fun serving the customers, less lonely."
"Hmm, I never thought about that before. I can see where it can get lonely though, there's no-one else to talk to back there as you wash the glasses, I suppose you must feel a little detached at times."
"A little, especially when you guys sound like you're having fun in here."
"You know, you did really well tonight, I think we make a good team. Would you be interested in helping out in the future?"
I nodded, "Yes, definitely."
"Great. C'mon, lets get you home."
The term continued to go well, the course was tough, but I studied three nights a week and on a Sunday afternoon I would set aside time just in case there was any extra work to do. I didn't really have much of a social life, but having never really had one before, I didn't feel that I was missing anything. I also had a possible lead on a flat. After the first year, the students who had stayed in the halls of residence needed to vacate them for the next influx of new students to the city, which meant they were looking for flats to rent. Hannah, my friend from university would be moving into a property that was owned by her father. He had purchased it as an investment and it had three bedrooms. The only problem with it was the location. I was on the east side of town; the university was in the centre of the town and my friend's flat was situated towards the west. I was reluctant to move so far away from my current job and if I was very truthful, from Toni in particular. She had become the most important person in my life. I really didn't want to give up any of the time I spent with her.
"You want to play pool?"
It was a Monday night and there was only one customer in the bar. Toni had been pacing back and forth, constantly moving around the bar with a cloth, and wiping down surfaces. I was sure she had already wiped them several times before. The place was spotless.
"I don't know how."
"C'mon, I'll teach you, I need to do something, this is driving me mad." She gestured out into the empty hall.
She called to John, her only customer that evening, to see if he needed anything before we started to play.
Toni put some coins in the slot and then the balls rumbled down towards the top end of the table as she released the coin mechanism. I selected a cue as per her instructions, while she racked the balls, explaining the rules as she did so. Toni broke the balls with a solid thunk then a whack, making the balls bounce of each other and run around all over the green baize. Showing me how to hold the cue and form a proper bridge with my left hand, I tentatively began trying to pot the balls with Toni's guidance.
"Ugh, I'm never going to be able to play this game," I declared after yet another miss.
"Sure you will, it's like anything, you just have to practice. Of course if you don't want to learn to play, then you don't have to practice." Toni added, her tone lightly questioning.
I potted a ball, much to my delight. "No, I like it, I want to practice.
Toni laughed, "That's great, but you just potted one of my balls?that's two shots to me."
She was in her element and continued to help me play while going on a run of potting balls to keep it fun for her. She seemed to be taking on almost impossible shots, which meant I could get in amongst the balls when she missed. I liked her way of thinking.
"So have you dated since you came here?" She enquired as I bent down to attempt a pot.
The question caught me completely off guard. It was a subject that we hadn't covered before, though I had definitely thought often about Toni dating. She was quite beautiful, but I had never heard her talk of a boyfriend.
"No." I answered hoping that would be an end to the matter, as I missed what should have been an easy pot.
Toni bent down to take her shot, "Why not?" She asked, as the red ball dropped into the corner pocket without touching the sides.
"I can't believe no-one has asked you on a date, in fact, I know that Sandy Fraser's son, Donald has asked you out more than once."
"How do you know that?" I knew I was blushing; I had no idea anyone knew he had asked me out on a date.
"I'm the bar manager, I know everything." Toni laughed, "Can you believe he asked my permission to ask you out? I thought it was cute."
"He didn't!" I was horrified.
Toni nodded laughing, "He didn't want to break the rules, and he thought there might be some code of conduct he had to abide by. I reckon he's the type who would ask your father for your hand in marriage, before he asked you."
"My father would approve of Donald whole heartedly," I countered.
The question hung in the air between us, as I formulated an answer. "Donald is a really nice young man, but he isn't what I'm looking for in a date."
"So you are looking, eh?" Toni was grinning and waggling her eyebrows. I knew she was teasing.
"Maybe," I replied with an air of indignation "And what about you, Miss Martin?"
Toni stopped playing and gave that question her full attention. "No, no-one special."
For some reason I was inordinately pleased by that information. Toni held my gaze and I felt something as yet intangible stir deep within me. I dipped my head quickly to hide the shy smile that sprang to my lips.
The following Saturday was a tough day, it was my Birthday and I was miserable. It was my first without my family around me. I had received a card from my sisters and brother and one from my parents. I loved reading all the little messages of love from them but there was a notable omission. My father had not sent any kind of message, my mother had most probably signed for him without his knowledge.
By the end of that night at work I just wanted to get home and put the entire day behind me. I took my usual trip to the bathroom to use the hand dryer to blast hot air onto my wet shirt. When I got back to the bar, which now had the shutters pulled down a surprise awaited me. I was greeted to a chorus of Happy Birthdays and a cake with nineteen candles. Tears immediately sprang to my eyes; I was so touched by the gesture. Toni, of course had paid attention to my date of birth on my job application. I was hugged and kissed by the staff and happily accepted my Birthday greetings. I used the knife Toni supplied to cut the cake and Cath had made a pot of tea, claiming you couldn't appreciate the cake without a good brew to help wash it down. It really was a fantastic end to a tough day.
Toni pulled up in front of the boarding house with only a few minutes to spare.
"Thank-you so much. You made my day."
"It's not over yet, I got you a little something."
I looked on as she reached behind her and picked up a wrapped present from the back seat. Switching the interior light on in the car, Toni handed me the neatly wrapped package. I fingered the paper reverently, noticing the elegant pattern and the gold embossed birthday wishes scattered over it. I gently opened the present, taking extra care not to rip the paper. All the while Toni waited patiently, her eyes taking in my actions with a look of barely concealed anticipation. I gasped when I saw what the gift was. A copy of 'North Uist - Its Archeaology And Topography'
by Erskine Beveridge. I opened the front cover and saw that it was number 152.
"How?" was all I could think to utter? I had told Toni all about this book and the thrill and anticipation I had felt at the opportunity to view one of the few known copies in existence. I had spoken of the frustration I felt at not being able to remove the book from the library. I opened the back cover to find the detailed map of the island still attached and in excellent condition. It folded out crisply. In fact upon closer inspection this book appeared to be in fantastic condition for its seventy-five years. I searched Toni's broadly grinning face, awaiting her answer.
She shrugged casually before answering, "I know someone, who knows someone."
I threw my arms around her, hugging her fiercely and thanking her profusely.
"You're most welcome," she murmured, her face close to mine.
Without even stopping to think, I pressed my lips to hers and held them there, I remember noticing how soft they were. I suddenly pulled back stunned by my actions. Toni looked as shocked as I felt.
"Oh?oh no, I'm sorry. I?."
I hastily opened the car door, desperate to run away. I could hear Toni telling me to wait, but I was in too much of a panic to act upon her request. I ran up the front steps and opened the door, slamming it shut and running straight for my bedroom. There I shut room door and leaned against it, waiting for my heart rate to slow down and my breathing to calm. I didn't think it was possible for my day to get any worse but it had. As I got ready for bed I tried not to think about tomorrow, when I would have to see Toni again, when I would undoubtedly have to face up to the consequences of my spontaneous actions.