The new girl appeared to be engaged, if the particularly beautiful ring
was anything to go by. Perhaps because of this, she managed and sustained
an athletic bounce in her step, while flaunting a disposition so
effervescent one would think she was about to burst. Antoinette, as her
name tag implied, seemed an extremely cheery individual. She had a smile
for every customer, a quick, coughed chuckle for every joke, gormless or
otherwise. I had no doubt Antoinette would prove to be a good girl, a yes
girl, a hard worker, a team worker. I observed the coquettish manner with
which she delivered greetings and service, her Revlon Blaze lips offering
perfunctory little grins, but, as Higgins had indeed observed, only on
those occasions when she was in direct conversation with her customers. At
other times, her face took on a pensive gaze, her sideways glance forever
fixed on her co-workers as she checked monies received and changes
Ronnie Higgins gazed over the rim of his coffee mug, his dry gray eyes
seeking contact with my own. "Well?"
I lifted my cup, my eyes tracing the ring of coffee left in its wake. "I
see what you mean," I told him.
Ronnie said, "Not here five minutes and she's kissing up to the boss,
ready to stab anyone in the back as makes the slightest mistake. She's a
chip off the old block, that one."
The old block, more pertinently, the girl's father, was Raymond Parkinson,
newly appointed Area Director in charge of Corporate Support, Worldnet
Telecommunications, Glasgow. "Flies in here from London with his toffy-nosed
accent," Higgins snorted, "and takes a job that ought to be mine. Dave
Saunders even gave the man twenty-five thousand pounds as a signing bonus.
Can you believe that?" Higgins' hand shook as he replaced the cup onto the
table. "Not that he does anything. The man is never there! Comes in at
eleven o'clock when most of the previous evening troubles have been dealt
with. And who do you think was there at seven in the morning to deal with
Higgins sat back in the chair, his shoulders stiffening. "Seventeen years
I've been with this company. Seventeen years!"
I was taken aback at Ronnie's anger, and I wondered if his depression was
not worsening. Ronnie, having a difficult and contrary disposition at the
best of times, for the betterment of the company, as he was used to
say, was never at any time a jovial man, never one to initiate
pleasantries. Having said this, I had never found his denunciations so
Others had talked of a haggard look about him, of a changed and now bitter
man. And though I had not previously witnessed prior bouts of Ronnie's
demonstrative anger, others had proclaimed me the lucky one and
warned of its inevitable surfacing. I felt only dismay towards these
abject warnings, and felt great disappointment in those who delivered
them. Had they no compassion? Had they no consideration? Could they not
attribute the change in Ronnie's character, in part at least, to the death
of his wife six years ago?
"Rubbish," some said. "Blame can only be attributed to Ronnie himself for
his downright laziness and inattentiveness in the field of personal growth
and development." Behind closed doors, some suggested that his impaired
ability to look after himself in any proper manner, was down to a drinking
I do not believe the latter to be true. When I first joined the company
some nine years ago, I found Ronnie Higgins to be a tireless and dedicated
colleague. Ronnie Higgins had been a top producer then and, to this day,
still holds a consecutive lead in the sales rankings. It was true that his
dress sense, self-respect and personal hygiene and overall outlook on life
might now leave a little to be desired, thus furthering the cause of
wagging tongues, I do believe, however, a good woman does watch over,
maintain and best all these things. If others would consider that prior to
the death of his good wife Rose, a wife to whom he had been totally
devoted, they would see that Ronnie had led the life of a rather venerable
gentleman. Now, as I gaze upon him, I may see the continence of a once
proud man, a somewhat faded and broken hero, if you will, a man now
wondering if life alone is a place still worth living in, but I do not see
a man taken to drink.
"And you know why she got this job," Ronnie said, giving me raised
eyebrows as he cocked his head towards Antoinette. "Because Parkinson,
Saunders, and the man who owns this cafe, fella called Sam Ramsey, are all
drinking buddies at the Tarnished Crown, And listen to this," Ronnie
added, his long, untrimmed fingernail tapping irritably on the tabletop,
"Parkinson's sister is manager at the Tarnished Crown!"
"Every afternoon," Ronnie continued, sliding his body to the edge of the
chair, his long fingers encircling the cold coffee mug, "Every afternoon,
between four and six o'clock, you'll find the three of them in there,
pissed out of their tiny little minds, likely as not. I once heard a rumor,"
Ronnie said, leaning inwards, his voice distinctively lower. "I once heard
a rumor that Parkinson got so drunk one time that he took his beer glass,
set it on the floor and pissed in it!"
"Ah," I said.
"I'll give this one here," Ronnie said, nodding once more to Antoinette,
"a couple of months and she'll be manager of this place, pushing out those
who deserve better." A finger rose from the rim of Ronnie's mug,
indicating a middle-aged woman to his left.
"Susan Ascot?" I intonated, taking in the woman's trim figure as she wiped
and tidied a nearby table, her hand cupped at the edge of the tabletop to
receive an assortment of debris. Susan was the part-time short-order cook
and, for five years now, had served up meals with a laugh that was
Her last task of the day, her current task, I noted as I stole a look at
her tired and reddened hands, was a quick check to make sure that each
table was thoroughly clean. I found myself disagreeing with Ronnie's
prognosis. "They wouldn't dare, " I said, "Susan is an asset to this
Ronnie continued unabated. "Those who have it, flaunt it," he offered
sullenly. Power and influence. You know what I mean? Comes in here from
London. Not here a week and the boss takes to him like a long lost
brother. Seems Saunders can't do enough for Parkinson." Ronnie hissed
through his teeth. "I mean, what kind of nonsense is that?"
I had no answer for Ronnie and he continued. "Have you seen his house?
Parkinson's house? Big bloody monster overlooking Loch Lomond. Not a stick
of furniture in the place, though."
I offered a wry smile. "Fur coat and no knickers."
Ronnie ignored my facetious remark. "Perfect families make me sick," he
said. "Got their perfect little wives, their perfectly well behaved little
children, a perfectly wonderful little dog and a perfectly wonderful big
Ronnie gazed out the window, taking in the slow moving traffic on Argyle
Street, my eyes following his as the wheels of a corporation bus rolled
over slushed and muddied snow.
"Wonderfully, bouncy perfect little families." I heard Ronnie mutter.
Horns blared as newsagents yelled out highest despairs and the values of
oil and steel. At the intersection, a young blind woman pondered her
precarious passage as lights changed red to green. I followed the young
girl as she tapped and cut her way across the intersection, the crowd
parting before her like the Red Sea before Moses. Through it all, gently
falling snowflakes lent halos to the mercury vapour streetlights, lighting
the pre-Christmas rush hour Avenue in a strange luminosity.
Pointing at the plate glass window, Ronnie offered his reflection a rather
garish and somewhat sardonic grin, a nasal sniff as he said, "I look
hellish, don't I? Distinctly hellish."
Recognizing one's problems is part of the solution. But one is best not to
dwell on the matter, most definitely not so much as Ronnie had been doing
in recent weeks. I moved my eyes from Ronnie's distinctly hellish face and
took in the long line of red tail lights cutting north. Lights changing
green to red.
Across the road, an elderly woman, dressed entirely in black, shuffled
through the snow, nylons sagging. There's a bigger picture, I thought. One
far more encompassing than that of Ronnie's reflection, if he could but
see it. Time heals, some do say. I've often heard that. And I do believe
in that concept to a certain extent. Having said this, I also believe in
the loss of heart. And the ravaging wolves of despair that plunder on the
ebbtide of one's emotions.
"I'm finished," Ronnie said, his comment surprising me, in spite of what
had preceded it. "I'm all washed up, you know."
"I don't understand," I told him.
"My, um..." Ronnie's voice broke, a bubble of mucus popping at his nostril
as he coughed and suppressed a good cry. "The old mince pies, you know,"
he said, reverting, as he often did, to street lingo. Pineapple - Chapel.
Mince Pies - Eyes. I knew the jargon well, having myself spent some time
in London's Charring Cross Road area.
Ronnie said, " I'm going blind, mate. Can you credit that."
I found it incredible, actually, but all I could do was gaze pensively at
the napkin in Ronnie's hands. Unwittingly he'd formed a little white
rabbit. I felt lost for words. Just what did one say at moments such as
this. not wanting to blurt out that old, mundane but dependable,
"Diabetic retinopathy," Ronnie said, smushing the little white rabbit up
against his left nostril. "I thought I had it under control. Docs given me
a year of sight."
"I'm sorry," I said.
Ronnie cleared his throat. The napkin nothing more than a round ball.
"Still, got to have a positive outlook. Isn't that what they say?" he
offered a nervous laugh. "I mean, what the hell. There's twelve year old
kids dying of cancer, so why should I feel sorry for myself." There was a
pause and he added. "Things happen, right?. It's life, isn't it, even if
it does suck."
It was only then that I realized the reason for his undue anger and
bitterness. "And there's nothing they can do?"
Ronnie turned, slight anger rising. "Well. Yes. A guide dog." He let out a
nervous chuckle then, "But I very much dislike dogs."
Ronnie was killed anyway...
It happened six months later and precisely forty-five minutes after
Parkinson had ushered him into his office and fired him, a fact that did
not come to light until after the funeral. Some say his death was suicide.
But just who, I would like to know, what person intent on committing
suicide, would jump from the platform, attaché case and white cane in
hand. What I agonize over is the fact that, had I not accepted an
invitation for an afternoon Scotch, I would have been at his side on that
platform, awaiting the 5:05 to Helensburgh, both of us, often as not,
bickering over recent local political issues.
Ronnie Higgins was a friend of mine, and I really ought to have been there
to watch over him, to mind that he did not advance too close to the edge
of the platform, perhaps to divert any unchristian intentions if I found a
need to do so. But Raymond Parkinson had invited me to the Tarnished
Crown, And I had accepted, hadn't I. I had gone for a drink with the boys.