“You wanna fight me? Eh?”
This unexpected but earnest question was asked of my husband a few years ago as he waited at the bus stop in a nearby village. Recognizing the man as a resident of a local care home, Sem calmly considered the offer for a moment and then checked his watch.
“I canna fight you just now,” he said amicably. “I’m catching the bus soon. Maybe another time?”
The man thought about it and then relaxed. “Aye, awright,” he agreed. “Another time, then!” He went on his way cheerfully and that was the end of that.
I have come to realize that villages around here “take care of their own,” and that includes folks like Sem’s challenger. Here (as everywhere) there are those who are developmentally disabled, some who have severe learning difficulties, others who have mental illnesses of various kinds, and a handful who are simply eccentric (remember “Wellies”?). This article is about some of them – people who are often outcasts – and how they “fit in” to their Highland villages.
Not far from here there’s a community for those who are able to live mostly on their own, but with some supervision. They are well-known by most folks. In bigger towns and cities I suspect they would get lost in a sea of faces (and the bilge of bureaucracy) and while I’m sure it can happen here, too, for the most part Highland villagers accept them as a part of things rather than shunning them.
My village has its fair share of this branch of the population, as well. Some have become legendary, like The Earl (not a real earl), who died before I came here – my loss! He was one of the more colorful characters in the village, usually to be found in the pub with his “boxie”, a small accordion which he played with more enthusiasm than skill. The Earl was playing with gusto in the local pub one evening when an incomer – a man very few people had time for – snatched the instrument out of his hands, making a rude comment about his playing. My husband’s friend, who was a rather imposing fellow, took issue with this affront to The Earl. Looking straight ahead and addressing the pub at large he said mildly, but darkly, “If somebody doesnae give The Earl his boxie back, they’ll be gettin’ a slap.”
The boxie was hastily returned to The Earl, with apologies.
Then there’s Jimmy, gone from us now as well, whose disability came about from a head injury. By the time I met him he was living by the harbor, well into retirement. No visitor could go past his house without being greeted by Jimmy, the self-appointed representative of the village. Along with his tourist-ambassador-duties, he decided that he was responsible for keeping things shipshape too. The Harbormaster had to chastise him more than once for repainting all the bollards along the harbor!
Jimmy seemed to have a thing for white paint, and not just for the bollards, either. One day he climbed nearly to the top of one of the high hills which dominate the village, found some very big rocks and painted them white, too. It must be pretty good paint; it’s more than a decade since he climbed up there but those rocks are white to this day despite much weather-battering. Why did he do it? No one knows, but he certainly left a nearly-indelible mark on the landscape. He could be cheeky and sly but he generally meant no harm. He liked to sing an old song or two with shop staff, most of whom knew him well. They would indulge him with cheery kindness but when he got to be too much of a handful one of them would invariably roar at him while pointing to the door. “Jimmy! OUT!” He would laugh, hold a handful of money out towards them, and sing one more verse while they picked out the correct amount for his purchases before sending him on his way. It was always done with good humor and a certain exasperated fondness, and rather than feeling uncomfortable, if you were a spectator to a sing-along you’d leave with a smile on your face about as wide as Jimmy’s mischievous grin. Despite a series of strokes and a fall or two, he doggedly walked to the shops nearly every day until he died.
There are a few others of note in my wee village but I’ll leave you with one last impression, this time of Glen.
Glen is a solid lad, well over six feet tall. He’s in his 30s I would guess, and his job in the village is to pick up litter and clean the public toilets. He goes around the streets either on foot or on his bike, wearing a bright orange boiler suit, sometimes with a sack and a long-handled trash-spearer (I’m sure there’s a technical name for it). Occasionally he even picks up some trash. Mostly, though, he keeps tabs on village life. If there’s construction going on, Glen is there for a chat with the boys. If there’s anything happening at all, he’s there. He is renowned for knowing all the news, not just about our village, but surrounding areas, too. It’s uncanny. If the road is closed for some reason, Glen knows about it before anyone else does. He spends his money on expensive model trucks and a quiet dram at the pub with his father and uncle. He has private nicknames for people; I don’t even want to know what mine is, as I hear they are not always flattering!
Glen limps a bit, he’s deliberate in his movements, and he doesn’t often meet people’s eyes, but the locals know there’s a lot going on behind the distant gaze. He misses nothing, and the thing about Glen is that his outward appearance can be misleading. Years ago while he was at work (before he got his current village gig), one of the men from a neighboring county kept mocking him. The guy was coarse and cruel, thinking himself clever for taunting the big, slow lad. The other men kept quiet and Glen went about his business, taciturn as ever, seemingly unaffected by the stream of insults. That is, until he reached his limit and suddenly swung hard, leveling his tormentor with one swift punch before turning wordlessly back to his work as though nothing had happened.
In the days afterwards if anyone asked the other guy what happened to his face, he found himself without anything to say. “I picked on Glen until he punched me,” did not seem to be a wise explanation. Not so mysteriously, none of the other lads had seen a thing, either. The local men knew Glen could handle himself, and the others from up north on the crew were probably just glad they hadn’t joined in with their pal’s nonsense!
I’ve alluded to Glen’s somewhat relaxed approach to his current job. A few years ago there was someone from Highland Council (Glen’s employer) who couldn’t stand him and tried hard to get him removed from the position. The village rallied round and fought his corner, and Glen remained employed. While our public bathroom is no cleaner, and our litter mostly gets picked up by the big street-sweeper that is driven around on Tuesdays, people are just satisfied that Glen still has his “wee job.”
“Glen might not be up to much,” folks say, “but he’s ours!”
That seems to be how it is, in these small villages. While no place is perfect, seeing how the more vulnerable among us are treated says a lot about a community. I like it here.