It didn’t look like her idea of a public library – a small, pink-washed building on one side of the main square. There wasn’t a sign saying ‘Library’, but then, if you lived on a very small island you would know where such places were.
She had imagined Alex putting books back on shelves, or being one of several assistants standing behind a desk, date stamp in hand, but it seemed Alex was the librarian for Tullaclough – at least, he was the only member of staff. He was absorbed in cataloguing something, but looked up and smiled when she came in. Apart from him, there was an old lady in gumboots and a mackintosh, and a man with a dog.
“Ah, the lovely lady from the hills!”
Once again she needed to check to see if he was making fun of her, but his face was grave. Alex had a knack, she noticed, of giving you his complete attention. He was gazing steadily at her now, waiting for her to say something.
“Do you by any chance provide access to computers here?”
“We do indeed – at least, to one computer.”
“Oh – I expect it’s fully booked then?” She was thinking of the library nearest to her flat in London, where it would have been necessary to book a week in advance.
“No indeed. It is very rarely used. The younger people tend to have their own computers, whilst the older ones regard them as having been sent by Old Cloots himself.”
“Don’t tell me…”
“The Devil. He of the cloven hooves. A cloot is one division of a cloven hoof, did you know that?”
“No. It seems there are an awful lot of things I don’t know.”
“And an awful lot of things you do. You could probably teach me a thing or two about Norse Mythology, for example.”
“I suppose so,” she said, returning his smile. And then, because somehow it was important, she couldn’t help asking. “That thing you said on the hills this morning about – my height. You called me a fine figure of a woman. Did you mean that, or were you taking the mickey?”
He looked at her for a moment, surprised.
“I had enough of mickey-taking when I was at school. I was really skinny then, and what with the red hair, the slippery glasses and the scruffy clothes – my family weren’t exactly well off, you see… It taught me one thing, though – always to be looking on the inside of people for beauty, rather than the outside.”
“And in your case,” he said, saving the day rather nicely, “it is both.”
“The idea for this article I’m writing came from a comment I overheard on the radio,” she admitted. “I was working on my computer, with Woman’s Hour on in the background, and there was this woman telling a story about a ceilidh that took place one evening in the Highlands. The most eagerly-awaited part of the evening was a beauty contest. The woman telling the story was a visiting southerner, like me, and she was struck by the fact that the winner of the contest was a huge, gawky girl, and quite plain by her standards. When she remarked on this, she was told that the men around these parts were hill farmers and the sort of girl they favoured was one who looked – as if she could carry a heifer under each arm.”
She had spoken lightly, but Alex could hear the hurt and anger underneath.
“It just so happens there is going to be a ceilidh tomorrow evening,” he said, “in the Victory Hall, just down the road. I would be honoured if you would accompany me, Marika.”
She looked at him for a moment, still uncertain.
“I can’t guarantee to be able to lift a heifer, Alex.”
“I can’t guarantee not to tread on your toes, Marika, since I am the world’s worst dancer. But I would enjoy your company all the same. Most of the young ladies round here wouldn’t be seen dead at a dance with a scrawny, carrot-topped chap like me. What they’re after is a man who can pull a tractor out of a ditch single-handed, then sprint from one end of Tullaclough to the other carrying two ewes and a lamb.”
This time, she thought, there was definitely a twinkle in his eye.
(Illustration: Sean Kearney, 2005 – Deviant Art)