Tell A Tale in 500 Words

A Midsummer Meeting By Tamsin Prideaux

It was midsummer when we met Wally, and the long Scottish evening had inched back the threatening thunder clouds.

Sunlight shafted diffidently across the barbeque smoke. A small, scruffy man with shuffling gait approached us and asked for a cigarette. No-one smoked but we offered him a burger instead and he settled beside us.

He bore the hallmarks of homelessness: a face flayed and crisp from iron north-easterly winds, limbs akimbo in a rag-tag of varying navy cloth, hands clutched around a nondescript can of booze.

Wally had lived in Edinburgh for twenty years but came from a tiny village on the west coast. “The last time I’ve been there was to bury my mother, I’ve not been back since.” He was to do the West Highland Way with his brother that summer but we looked at his sparse bristle brush of white hair and his trembling hand and knew otherwise. Wally told us that they had started the West Highland Way many years before but had never been able to complete it. Animation suffused his form when he spoke about it, the scenery and travelling with his brother. Life had taken him “everywhere in Scotland” but he missed the village he would never return to.

We all played Frisbee together as if his suffering and words about the hardness of life had never been articulated. All self-conscious. All pretending to be “normal”. All trying to act as our progressive morals dictated. Was this the right thing to do or should we try to do more for this man? But it didn’t really matter what we thought and Wally stayed, ate and played far into the gathering twilight.

We said goodbye, shaking hands with Wally before he vanished into the grainy dusk. A companion of the group turned to me and said “I hope you wash your hands before touching anything, I know you didn’t want to be rude but there could be anything on there.”

Anything that could also be on your phone, or a door handle, or the barbeque we were just handling, I thought.

And they say that untouchables don’t exist in the Western world. An untouchable is a barbaric invention of a backward society that simply doesn’t exist on this Sceptred Isle.

Yet our streets throng with untouchables of a modern kind.

Summer was ending when I saw Wally again. The Scottish evenings were shorter now and the streets gorged with tourists. Festival banners and tents splashed rude colours across the unyielding gravity of the ancient city. Sounds bubbled with organised fun. Corporate marquees charged £4 a beer for the pleasure of half an hour in their version of alternative culture.

As I walked with friends past a darkening bench, two drunk men called “Hello Girls!”

Involuntarily I looked and, a beat too late, recognised Wally. Unsure again of the right thing, I turned back to my companions and stepped towards the festival lights.

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