The town hall clock has stopped. It hasn’t worked for years, a lady in the café tells me. She tells me this shortly after she has asked me if I know anything about Henry vacuum cleaners as hers is playing up.
The clock is one marker of decay, the sealed-off promenade area another. When the waves aren’t climbing over the wall and scratching your face, the Isle of Arran is visible from here. Then comes Ailsa Craig, a crumbly pyramid. The skies are big, the seas gloopy and tempting. I walk to Nonsuch Amusements, where a teenage boy skives school to put pence in slots. Orange and red lights flash against his pale face, his eyes besotted with apples and pears, pushes and holds. I look at him and I want to believe that one day the joke will be on the boys and girls who swotted up and studied hard, that one day he will make a home and a name but most of all dollars for himself in Las Vegas.
The high street has a sad shell but a busy heart. A church has become Best Buys (‘Everything £1’). It sits near Pound Express and the Pound Plus Mart. The pound goes far in Saltcoats, if you avoid the amusements. A shivering old man in a kilt walks by me and waves a gentle hello to a lady selling the Big Issue. “I’ll get mine the night, Magda hen” he assures her. “Give me a smile” says a graduate-voiced twenty-something in a deceptively expensive woolly hat. He has fingerless gloves and a clipboard and wants me to hear about Greenpeace. I avoid him but a second clipboard warrior is not far behind, like the mole-bashing game back at the amusement arcade. These are Direct Debit magpies, bussed into a poor area full of people with sound hearts. I stand and watch one of them nearly walk into a bloke in overalls. “Look where you’re going” he shouts, “and not at that bloody phone.”
Queues linger in Alex Bicket Quality Butcher and men sense a snifter in the Labour Club can be had before ‘she’ finishes her appointment in Salon 71, home of ‘Massage Body Treatments Cosmetic Injections Teeth Whitening Ear Piercing’. It is a busy, breathing, Usborne book of a town centre, albeit one whose pages are curling at the corners.
Beyond it, there are two grand theatres gone by, one now a Wetherspoon’s, and rows of wide streets where Victorian boarding houses have become family flats. Here streamed the Fair Fortnight Glaswegians, because after the pavement comes the beach. There is no plaque, but in one of these homes was born Otto Kiep, a man killed by the Nazi regime for plotting against Adolf Hitler. History daubs the streets as it always does in smalltown Scotland. Where there are bricks there are stories.
I walk slowly along towards the sea, looking into these houses and catching glances of lives. Three men watching daytime television and laughing. Shift workers from somewhere east? Lonely unemployed Dads finding solace in human company and property programmes? An old man on his own with an empty budgie cage. Where is the budgie? Exercising or buried in the backyard? A young Mum and a smiling bairn, both of them lost in each other’s eyes and in the exultancy of besotted, unreasoning parent-child love. A dog walker asks me if I am lost and I suppose I am, really.
Down by the harbour I stand and look outwards, to islands then…Newfoundland? The seafront stretches languidly, to Ardrossan one way and Stevenston the other, ‘The Three Towns’. I try to hear yesterday’s whispers in the wind, the bustle of holidays being had, of people rolling up and rolling up to shows at the Beach Pavilion. A gust shoves some clouds apart and ushers in the shy sun. It closes its eyes, counts to three and then lets out an almighty burst of sunrays. They skim the sea and illuminate the bricks of Saltcoats houses.
At Greggs I sit-in, underneath an old bicycle strapped to the wall, or perhaps a replica of an old bicycle made in a factory to be strapped to a wall. A daughter tells her baffled mother about graffiti: “It’s a competition thing. They have to get their Tags everywhere.” “But, why?”, pleads her Mum. I talk to a lady called Marion who moved to Saltcoats during the war when her home in Clydebank was bombed. In early peacetime, she tells me, Marion and her family hated the Germans and the Japanese. “Then you meet them, and they’re all just the same as us really, all just trying to live their lives and be happy.” She puts on her anorak. “Ach well,” says Marion, “It’s not such a bad place, this. It just needs someone to smile on it.”