My Highland village is full of ‘incomers’ like me. I have found that some of them reinvent their past to create a history more interesting than the truth, and didn’t I miss my chance at that?! It never even occurred to me to embellish my past. I could truthfully say, for example, that I’ve sung at Carnegie Hall! Though I’d have to leave it at that rather than tell the full story which is that I was eight years old, we were there for a church service, and there were thousands of other people there singing hymns too… so you see where the reality differs ‘a wee bitty’ as they say here, from the initial true-but-incomplete statement. But I don’t go in for fictionalizing myself, nor do some others who have moved here to settle in quietly, their past not much of a topic, as they simply enjoy a peaceful Highland life.
Brian was one such gentleman. I knew nothing about him but often saw him sitting on his favorite bench or walking around the village, a large, slow-moving man who always wore a cap and usually had wellies (Wellington boots) on. I didn’t know his name so in my mind he became “Wellies.” He rarely spoke and his expression was always taciturn. He wasn’t rude, he just held himself in a way that didn’t invite conversation. But there was something about him that touched me, and I decided I would start a charm offensive at the earliest opportunity.
One day I was walking down to the village when I spotted Wellies trudging up the hill. His eyes slid over and past me as we approached, at which point I beamed at him and said, “Hello! Lovely day!” His gaze flicked over my face and there was the merest pause in his stride, a hesitation at having been noticed and spoken to. He nodded and made a greeting-sound, not quite a hello but not, “Leave me alone, you upstart,” either. So it went, over weeks and months. Whenever I’d see him I would say hello and smile, ever more delighted when I saw the thaw begin. He’d nod, the merest of acknowledgements that I was a person now on his radar, and then, oh! That glorious day when he said hello, first!
One tourist season I worked at a café in the village, and on my second shift who should walk in and head directly to a table as though he owned it, but Wellies! The café owner took me aside. “That’s Brian,” she said. “He comes in a few times a week. I know his favorites so he’ll just tell you what he wants, it doesn’t have to be from the menu. That and a pot of tea with two teabags, and also ask him what kind of sandwiches he wants to take with him.” She reckoned he was “somewhere on the autism spectrum,” and told me he might need help counting his change.
I saw the light of recognition in his eyes when I approached. He didn’t smile, exactly – Wellies never smiled. But his expression changed subtly and he said, “So you work here, now,” and placed his order. He ate methodically and then he counted out exact change without my assistance. I later realized it was because I just waited while he laid his money out, rather than chirping at him like a mad interfering bluebird, as the café owner was wont to do. After one last sip of tea he neatly stacked up his dishes, collected his sandwiches and left, all of it a well-practiced, deliberate routine. I’d see him around the village or in the café and while he didn’t greet me with glad cries of joy, I knew I had registered on his consciousness. I often wondered about this lone, quiet and bearlike man.
Last year I found out too long after the fact that he had died. It happened while we were away from the village, and I heard about it completely by chance. I was upset, as I knew his funeral wouldn’t have been all that well-attended since he had no “people” that I knew of, and no friends here in the village. I wish I’d known. I would have gone.
A short while later an article appeared in the local paper, written by a friend of Brian’s who lived in France. It answered some questions I’d had, and left me with more. Wellies was in the Highlands because it had been his lifelong dream to retire there. He had no “people” because he chose never to marry or have children – he had a medical condition he did not wish to pass on to future generations. Most surprising of all, he’d been an amateur astronomer and a lecturer of sorts. ‘Back in the day’ he’d given a series of lectures on the planets which had been so well-received and popular that he’d been persuaded eventually to have them transcribed and published. I don’t know what surprised me more; that he was a published author, or that he had actually TALKED – in public, no less, to groups of people! I found a copy of his book, though I haven’t read it yet; it is a bit technical, and my interest in astronomy stretches only a little past the, “Ooooh twinkly!” stage. I’m glad I have it, though. It seemed like the right thing to do, to buy it.
People will already have started to forget old Wellies, who struggled more and more in his latter days. He certainly won’t be remembered for being a lecturer of astronomy. I didn’t learn a single planetary fact from him, but I did learn something. Everyone has a story. You never know who people really are, or who they once were, I suppose, especially not when they prefer it that way. Isn’t it worth it, though, to try to connect, if only to nod and smile, to let someone know they are noticed and recognized? It seems a very good way to be, and I need to do it much more often.
I kind of hope, though, that I was an unexpected bright sparkle in Brian’s solitary universe, while we, for a little while, shared the village we called home.
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands. Equally surprising to her is that she now has a small business restoring and selling old fountain pens. These two facts have convinced Deb that life is either beautifully random, or filled with destiny created by someone with a sense of humor. She hopes the fine north state residents will accept her as an honorary member, since she has some cousins in California who she visited once, but even more importantly because the north state folks she actually knows are fabulous people, who are also the reason for her presence here on anewscafe.com. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Deb is grateful that she lives in a place that’s about as point-and-shoot as it gets. Her tortoiseshell cat, Smartie, rates her as an average minion, too slow with the door-opening but not too bad on the food-dish-refilling, and her husband hasn’t had her deported back to the States yet, so things must be going all right there, as well.