The door to the town is locked. Wick is closed for the night even before News at Six has finished. In the old fishermen’s cottages and in the dock owners’ serious mansions they have not yet done the tea-time dishes, but Wick is shut. I rattle the door, the entrance and exit to Wick Station, but it holds firm. ‘Ach well, best get back on the train’ says to me a lady hulking a wheelie suitcase about. Wick has a side door, though, and if you really want to get in while the sun is stickily collapsing, then you can.
On the curvy hill from the station, chiselled words proclaim ‘Some Distinguished Visitors to Wick’. The last left in 1923. The buildings here are silvery-grey and made of fierce bricks, and they line roads wide enough for whales on horseback. Ivy climbs up the library and among black houses with yellow pointing, giraffes in reverse. No-one moves and nothing stirs, though trees planted by a Victorian merchant here and a green-handed pensioner there rattle away. Wick looks at me with sad eyes, yet those eyes have a glint in them. History hangs about, resulting in a certain air, and modern life floats along contentedly, reminding you that this place still breathes. Schoolboys in white oriental pyjamas arrive for karate in the hall, dog walkers grunt their secret language to one another and Shona walks by the water to meet the Tuesday Night Girls in Wetherspoon’s. Someone has written ‘Lee is gay’ on a wall down Albert Street. Passing clocks and pillars and a street named Sunbeam Terrace, I find the concertina steps down to the harbour, steps LS Lowry thought monotonous and gorgeous enough to paint.
On this side of the water is Pulteneytown, on the other Wick proper. This was ‘the first industrial planned town’ according to an information board by an old brass canon. In 1790, Thomas Telford designed a harbour metropolis, water supplies and all, and shortly afterwards 1,000 fisherfolk sailed in and settled. Boats still crawl in and out, their bells ring in the breeze this evening. Rowing clubbers roll in all radish red, somewhere between ‘picture of health’ and ‘heart attack’. Their pints are now earned, and they can stretch the Wick evening in a pub.
After the harbour is the cliff, after the cliff I don’t know what. It feels like the end of the world, and all the more pleasant for it. It is impossible to feel anything but contentedly unimportant and small when listening to ferocious, eternal sea thrashing the cliffs. The smell helps too: a mix of bonfire, chimney smoke and the distillery, which exhales among streets in seamless lines with perfect stone. The buildings look as if Lowry himself sketched them onto the sky. This place has a calculated, permanent beauty.
Back by the harbour I cross over into the original Wick. Above are wonderful skies of a sun that can’t keep open its eyes, changing blues and clouds like soup bubbling in a cauldron. The old high street is sad and beautiful, as embodied in the clock-towered building at its centre. This is two-thirds hanseatic glamour and one-third Original Factory Shop. D.R Simpson Bookseller has recently closed down. A long, final letter in its window ends: ‘I wish you, our customers, a safe and prosperous life and hopefully we will meet again one day, on better terms.’ Other shops survive and will not let Wick fade, their character and diversity seeing to that. Whatsits has two windows, one offering BB guns and the other alarm clocks. Hugo Ross sells televisions and fishing tackle, and has a rifle in the window. There are one or two shops with yellow cellophane draped across their windows, a homely trait from happier times.
Dark falls leaving the yellow glows of cosy insides. Houston’s chippy throws luminous light outwards. I pass by and hear the friers crackle, smell that saintly smell and see teen servers in white coats idly flirting, each hoping the other doesn’t recognise acne. De Vita’s, the town Italian, is cheerful beyond reason tonight. Not one of its red-and-white-checked tables is free. Balloons are tied to the backs of chairs and outside a gaggle of women suck cigarettes before mains are served.
Practice is swelling towards its beginning in the Pipe Band Hall. After martial arts, rowing and ballet girls by a youth club, it is the fourth hobby being pursued I have so far seen. No wonder there are not many people around; the men and women and boys and girls of Wick are busy being useful. Not like city folk, watching screens or hiding indoors. They are doing, and being. Small towns make you like that.
As I walk back to my bed and breakfast, I find myself whistling. I think it is because I want to be noticed and to join in too, to be part of this town at the end of the world. I am glad we didn’t get back on the train.