THE PIVOTAL SUMMER OF LENNOX L (with apologies to J P Donleavy)

Shirley knew who he was, all right: he drove the only remaining Mobile Library in Argyll, a painfully bright yellow abomination that she was often obliged to tail for tortuous miles on single track roads. He was a terrible driver, or at least terribly slow. He clearly never looked in his rear-view mirror.

She knew who he was because she often found herself queueing for the same ferry, or re-fuelling at the same filling station. She knew his name was Lennox Livingstone and that – when he wasn’t on the road – he lived alone up some track somewhere down the peninsula. She had risked the odd consciously casual hand gesture or nod of recognition but could not be sure that these had been registered: Lennox Livingstone seemed to be in the grip of a perpetual preoccupation that was attractive yet, from a pragmatic viewpoint, disadvantageous.

Lennox knew who she was, of course: she drove a mercilessly pink Skoda Yeti breezily emblazoned GIRLZ BY SHIRLZ. He could see her quite distinctly in his rear-view mirror: she clearly had no idea about braking distances. It brightened his day to slow down and hold her up in the knowledge that she would execute an ill-advised overtaking manoeuvre accompanied by a deranged light-show of indicators, headlamps and hazards. This may have been acknowledgement or admonition, but either way Lennox was rewarded with a fleeting view of her face as she drew alongside. Their paths crossed with regular intermittence at ferry terminals and filling stations, where she would nod and wave with an air of inattention that somehow discouraged reciprocation. He knew her name was Shirley Watt and – when she wasn’t on the road – she lived alone somewhere in Knapdale. She was, indisputably, very pretty.

“She’s indisputably very pretty? That’s it?” Dave slapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Come on, Lenny mah man – surely ye can dae better than that!”

“Please, Dave – gimme a break here. I’m out of practice. Been a long time, y’know?”

“Aye. Exactly. You, mah man, are in need of some tactical advice. Not tae mention a visit tae the Turkish barber…”

*********************************************************************************************************

“Thing is, Betty, I’m terminally romantic. I don’t actually want anything to – (here Shirley rolled her eyes and made speech marks with her index and middle fingers) – happen. I’m not looking to -(idem) – progress anything, force the issue. Not that there is any issue. In fact. If you get my meaning.”

“Shirley, dear,” Betty bravely squinted through the miasma of hairspray, “I believe I do. Get your meaning, I mean. I mean, you mean that actually you can’t stop thinking about him. A bit more lacquer, dear, got to last me until the christening on Sunday. And quite honestly, I don’t know why you’re dithering. He’s a lovely man. Kind, funny, educated….och, I could fair fancy him myself!”

Shirley, smiling ruefully, held the mirror to the back of Betty’s head, was rewarded as usual with “Perfect, dear”, brushed the fine stray hairs to the floor and whisked away the pink apron with the aplomb of a matador.

“Trouble is, Betty, I’m out of practice. It’s been a long time, y’know?”

Betty cocked her newly coiffed head and considered Shirley in the mirror.

“He stays the night on Jura every second Monday. My poor old neighbour’s at Leargybreck these past five years: she’s a great reader, is Ina, sees him regular as clockwork at the home, Monday afternoons. He’s that considerate, he spends that long there with all those old souls, he canny make the last ferry. There you go, Shirley love, a pound for the sweetie jar too, and put me down for a fortnight hence.”

Betty donned her coat and arranged her rain mate around her hairdo as one might bubble wrap a Ming vase. She stepped down from the fragrant micro-climate of the Yeti into inner-Hebridean smirr.

“Jura. Every second Monday. That means next week. Toddle-oo.”

*********************************************************************************************************

Lennox parked up the Mobile Library in the lay-by on the B8025. Dave, a strong advocate of social engineering, had ensured that his grandmother would be one of Shirlz’ Girlz on a Tayvallich Mobile Library day.

Lennox had considered, constructed and recreated the scene so often that he could almost have stood in the dock and sworn it had happened just so, but of course now that he was confronted with the vagaries of possibility he was in the dry-throated throes of profound anxiety.

With shaking hands and diminishing conviction in the plan, he placed the warning triangle at what he gauged to be the appropriate distance from his vehicle, and positioned himself strategically: he would see traffic approaching from fore and aft but was himself not immediately visible.

Sure enough, one motorist, and then another, pulled over to come to his aid. To each he gave thanks, thanks very much, very good of you, just waiting for the recovery vehicle, yup, Stag Garage, think they’re on another call-out, just a matter of waiting, aye, at least the rain’s stayed off, thanks again, take care now.

Lennox, unaccustomed to dissembling, winced at his own deceit. Why had he allowed himself to be talked into this ridiculous ploy? All he’d said was that she was pretty. Albeit indisputably.  And – he hadn’t told Dave this – undeniably, she appealed to him. He was sweating now and his breath was stale and ah god here was the pink Yeti appearing over the blind summit.

Shirley was running late and therefore speeding, struggling simultaneously to steer on this narrow winding road and to wolf down her Shapers chicken and pesto sandwich, so that when she espied the yellow abomination and Lennox Livingstone emerging shiftily from the ditch where presumably he had stopped for a slash or worse, she was simply too constrained by time, etiquette and food deposits between her teeth even to flash her customary lights as she passed.

Shit, she thought a full five minutes and several bends later: was that a warning triangle?

Shit, thought Lennox as she blurred by, pinkly: what am I doing? Pretending to break down, for God’s sake. Like some weirdo sick woman-abductor in a crap novel.

********************************************************************************************************

“Broken down, you say? Och, that’s a bugger. I’m expecting a couple of books I reserved weeks and weeks ago…I think they’re coming from Dunoon, very popular, big long waiting list. That Denise Mina, d’you know her? Hails from Glasgow. Great writer.”

“I don’t. Never even heard of her. I used to read a lot but nowadays I’d be hard pushed to name a contemporary writer. Never seem to have the time these days.” She stole a look at her watch.

“Um….will – er – the Library still make it today, d’you think?”

Dave’s granny smiled broadly, whether at her shampoo and set or the mention of the Library Shirley could not determine.
“That Lennox Livingstone is a lovely person,” she said. “Do you have a library card, dear?”

********************************************************************************************************

At Leargybreck, Lennox said to Ina, “It’s you I feel bad for – don’t you be worrying about me. I’ll be all right – to be honest, if it weren’t for my readers I’d probably have given up by now anyway…quite fancy a change, you know? A new challenge. But of course I’m truly touched by the petition, I really am. You never know: maybe the Council will sell me the van – lock, stock and barrel – and then perhaps we can all work something out.”

At Tayvallich, Dave’s granny said to Lennox, “I’ll tell you what it is – a disgrace! Cutbacks my Aunt Fanny. Mibbe they should start by paying themselves a bit less up at Kilmory. Well. Better reserve me all they Denise Minas whilst the goin’s good. An mibbe I’ll just no’ be returnin them!”

At Lagavulin, Betty said to Shirley, “Of course we’ve known for a while now that it was only a matter of time. What with the internet and young folk just not reading any more. There’s a petition right enough, we’ve all signed it needless to say, but och I doubt it’s a foregone conclusion.”

Shirley said, “To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll be carrying on much longer myself. Just don’t have the business any more – you know, most of my clients – well, all of them really – are – ”

“Poppin their clogs.” Betty supplied grimly. “And what about the young women -?”

“Och, I’m old school: curl it up or cut it off! Now it’s all about straighten it out or add it on – hair, nails, lashes. And then there’s all that other stuff. Fake bake, massage, wax, God knows what else.”

She leaned in towards Betty, conspiratorially. “There’s this double decker, converted, does the rounds from – dunno – Inverness to Oban, maybe. Called The Beauty Bus. Does the lot, apparently. Manicure, pedicure – coiffure, obviously – tanning, reflexology, hen nights, pregnancy packages….you name it. How can I compete with that? Can’t! Don’t even want to!”

Shirley caught her shrillness, brought it down with a soft laugh, then confessed, “To be perfectly honest, Betty, if it hadn’t been for all my lovely clients such as your good self – well, I’d have given up long ago. Och, don’t be looking so sad. A change would do me good!”

“Oh, love…” Betty shook her head (gently, mindful of the curlers) and then, brightening, “Been to Jura yet?”

*********************************************************************************************************
It was a quintessential summer’s morning at Kennacraig: misty, damp and cold. The mad west coast topography dictated that, although Jura was the closer island, the ferry must nevertheless circumnavigate its southern half to land at Port Askaig on Islay, and travellers must then take a second ferry across the sound to Feolin. Leargybreck Care Home lay on the east coast, a short drive along Jura’s only real road, known as The Long Road to distinguish it from all the other roads that may have been.

Shirley had been to Jura once before, in the long ago and far away. With friends who assured her she’d love it, she had tacked, jibed, close-hauled, reached, retched and spewed. Like the islands themselves, she had been smeared by relentless rain into one desolate smudge of indeterminate colour on the grey Atlantic canvas. At last, in the hotel in Craighouse, she had lain in an enormous cast iron bath tub filled and refilled with the miracle of hot running water, vowing never to return.
So what was she doing now, chuntering along the bloody A846 in a pink Yeti in uncertain pursuit of a not-for-much-longer-mobile librarian?

“Betty, Betty…” Shirley growled softly in time to the windscreen wipers, “you’re a besom.” Then, for the next few miles past Jura House and through Cabrach and Craighouse, warming to her theme: “Betty Besom, Betty Besom, Betty – ”

And then there it was: the yellow abomination, its colour running somewhat in the rain but still bright against the muted aquarelle facade of Leargybreck House. Shirley sat very still for a few moments. No need to panic. Every right and (contrived) reason to be here. Just get the parcel out of the back for Ina. From Betty. Proceed to foyer, ask for Ina, who was expecting her, chat for an appropriate length of time, leave parcel, leave building, register neutral pleasant surprise at sight of mobile library, stick head round door, say hello to Lennox Livingstone, sorry about driving past you the other week there, hope you got towed away all right and the midges weren’t too bad…

********************************************************************************************************

Ina’s parcel contained, amongst other items, half a dozen tins of ready-mixed gin and tonic and a lemon. Ina dispatched Shirley to the kitchenette for ice – “For our bunions, dear” – and insisted she could not drink alone: “Simply not the done thing, dear. Now, about that lovely Mr Livingstone…”

********************************************************************************************************

Lennox, emerging into the late afternoon with Mr McGinlay and his large-print Clive Cussler, did a classic comic double-take: GIRLZ by SHIRLZ? At Leargybreck? The cosmos obligingly confirmed: there was Shirley, just turning away from the main entrance and into his path. He would have stopped dead but for the surprisingly determined onwards trajectory of Mr McGinlay, who wheezed at Shirley as they passed, “Afternoon! No time to lose!”

“No, indeed!” agreed Shirley in genial incomprehension. “Afternoon!” She aimed a nod and a wave at the old bampot and the apparently disorientated Lennox whose own hand jerked upwards, though in response or spasm she could not divine.

To drive away now would be cowardly and a waste of the ferry fare: Shirley, swallowing hard, stepped out of the rain and into the mobile library. The signs of recent enthusiastic patronage were manyfold: a neat pile of books on the counter, alongside some scribbled-on post-its, a biro and a pair of reading spectacles; a couple of volumes open upon a round table; several more books stacked like jenga; an empty bag of Foxes Glacier Mints; an eightsome reel of damp footprints on the purple carpet.

Behind her, Lennox cleared his throat. “Sorry – ”

“No, no – I’m sorry – ”

“You’re sorry -?”

“Yes, yes! I’m sorry I drove past you the other week there. I thought – ”

“Oh God, that. No, no – forget about that. That was – a mistake. No, it’s me who should be sorry, and I am, because you see – ”

Shirley, surprising herself, stopped him by holding up her hand, and then swept it round, indicating the shelves.

“Do you happen to have any J P Donleavy – ” she cleared her throat – “Lennox?”

“Don – Donleavy? You like Donleavy?”

“Certainly do. And Beckett, goes without saying. Joyce, obviously…”

“Well I’ll be damned…” Lennox was smiling at her and shaking his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever met another human being who’s read Donleavy… And sorry, no, there’s none here – but I do have all of his works. At home, I mean. If you’d like to borrow them…er…Shirley.”

They stood silently for a moment then, in the doomed mobile library, and smiled foolishly at each other. Later, she would tell him how she came to be a hairdresser instead of a teacher; he would relate the history of the first perambulating libraries. She would confide her desire for change, how she was thinking of a distance-learning course in English Literature; he would describe to her his plan to buy this yellow abomination – actually a 2004 Iveco-Ford – and take it wherever he fancied, running book clubs and reading groups and carrying on the noble tradition of democracy, diversity and delivery: the Hippocratic Oath of the Librarian. He would suggest, only half in jest that he – they – might go to Kenya, where mobile libraries were carried by camel; or to Zimbabwe, where donkeys drew wooden boxes of books. In Thailand, he would tell her, they used elephants.

But right now, there was the evening ahead. It was a thirty minute drive to Craighouse, Lennox said, and if they were quick they could get some wine from Spar before it closed.

“In that case,” Shirley reasoned, “I’d better go ahead.”

*********************************************************************************************************

She was waiting for him outside the shop, triumphantly clutching chilled white wine, red wine, and a picnic of sorts.

“Your place or mine?” she asked, indicating the two vehicles now parked shore-side.
“Because let’s face it, between the rain and the midges, the beach is off.”

They opted for the Iveco-Ford. By the end of the second bottle, feet up on the dashboard, they had covered the recent past and the near future.

“Yup,” Lennox began, by way of conclusion, “we’re both ready, Shirley. Ready for a change. Be not afraid! Change is healthy! Change is dynamic!”

“You’re not wrong, Lennox. Change is good for you…your personal development and growth…and on that subject – ”

” – Bring it on! Change your life! Embrace the change!”

“Lennox, there’s a change I’d like to make for you right now,” announced Shirley, suddenly sombre. For a giddy moment, he pictured the big cast iron bath tub she’d mentioned earlier.

*********************************************************************************************************

An hour or so later, they were in bed, chaste and separate. In Room 7, Shirley had fallen asleep smiling at the thought of all that reading she would do, and book-bearing boats gliding along exotic waterways. In Room 15, beneath his short back and sides, Lennox was dreaming of Shirley in that big bath tub, a beatific smile on his freshly shaven face.

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2 thoughts on “THE PIVOTAL SUMMER OF LENNOX L (with apologies to J P Donleavy)”

  1. Seadams, congratulations on winning this month with your tour de force (or tour de Liningstone?) what a marvellous and hunky story. You’re flying!

    Like

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