Tarbert, Isle of Harris, Wednesday 5th August 2015
Late yesterday afternoon as I began to review the events of the day, the doors inside momentarily rattle. And the wind rushes through long-leggy grasses and wild irises (that I can see through the kitchen window) till they’re almost horizontal.
Then I think of that young blonde girl driver who narrowly missed me in Pier Road at lunchtime when we came out of First Fruits cafe. And it made me think of those drivers in their hundreds and thousands, everywhere, who carry out dangerous manoevres in their cars every day on mainland UK, including our own village, with no regard for anyone; those drivers who put their foot down in any situation without a second thought, do not indicate their intentions, and show no consideration to anyone with their threatening behaviour.
The words of one of the three American guys at our table in the cafe came back to me. I’d told them we’d been coming to the Isle of Harris for twenty-one years. One of them works in Frying Pan Alley in the City of London (the other two who live in Florida quickly had something to say about the skills (lack of) of Oregon drivers who head south to Florida out of the cold in winter) and he asked if we had noticed any changes in Harris during that time. I said Yes.
I’m trying to concentrate as the doors rattle again and the grasses and irises are thrashed in the strong wind.
But before anything else I mustn’t forget Frying Pan Alley, which you encounter on Jack the Ripper walks, and why we were sitting with the Americans in the first place. Most of the tables were occupied when we went into the cafe at gone 12 noon, except the table that seats four just inside the door where two young men were seated. I asked if the two of us could join them. One showed the palm of his hand signifying Please do. There was a bit of quiet chat for a few seconds during which time I worked out they were American. That’s when yesterday’s story really began. Soon we were talking to the two of them, who were joined by another young American guy who drew up a chair to the left of mine. The latecomer said he was pleased he’d just managed to get a shower; they’d been camping anywhere they could find a spot by the roadside. But going back to Frying Pan Alley, the subject of a talk I’d given at Dirty Dicks pub was brought up, the pub being close to the alley. We chatted on but the City man was interested in what I give talks about. The last woman to be hanged in the UK, I said. That led on to one saying he was “astonished they were still hanging people in England in 1955” and how impressed he was with “the most macabre bit of cafe talk ever, anywhere”. They didn’t know about my findings for my Ruth Ellis book. One said his mother hadn’t even been thought of in 1955. They knew nothing about Stephen Ward. They’d never heard the name Profumo. and one asked if he could take a selfie of himself with me. They were actually hanging men in the early 1960s and I forgot to mention that. And we didn’t get into conversation about capital punsihement in general. And I hope the selfie thing doesn’t happen again soon.
I said it’s difficult to describe in a nutshell the changes we’ve seen on the Isle of Harris over 21 years. Lots of men used to work outside with their sheep I told them. It’s different now. There are fewer men and fewer sheep. And thinking about it now (in hindsight after someone nearly tried to mow me down in Pier Road immediately after our chat in the tearoom) we would not have seen young girls driving fast around the village 21 years ago. That’s all changed. As soon as they get to 17 they’re learning to drive now just like anywhere else on UK mainland.
They were impressed with the macabre chat. I was impressed by the three guys’ perfect teeth!