Business was slack, so the pubs closed early and the ferry came in for the night. A brown suitcase was left standing on the pier; it stood there for hours and nobody came for it and nobody complained. It was out all night, and in the morning somebody took it along to Lost Property.
The sky was pink above the school and at eight o'clock the high tide arrived and later the promenade was quiet except for the barking of a dog. From out in the bay you could see lights coming on in the windows of Rothesay, the main town on the Isle of Bute. Inside the rooms there were shadows moving and the shadows were blue from the televisions. It had been a rough winter. First the swimming baths were closed down and then a fire destroyed the railway station at Wemyss Bay. In January, the winds got up to seventy miles per hour, interrupting ferry services to the islands, and then Rothesay's assistant harbourmaster died, and then Mr McGettigan the butcher died. Two elderly men in blue blazers were standing along from the harbour talking about these and other matters, one man smoking a pipe and the other a rollup, leaning against the sea-railing, the water lapping on the pebbles beneath them, the gulls overhead.
'Good chips depends on getting a hold of the best tatties,' one said. 'It's the tatties that make the difference. They used to have them all the time. Nowadays, the chip shops are buying in rubbish tatties that should never have been planted in the first place.'
'Aye,' said the other. 'You need Ayrshires or Maris Pipers. This lot are using spuds you wouldn't feed to the pigs.'
'And the state of the lard...'
'Aye, the lard. Thick wi' crumbs and decrepit wi' use. Terrible mess. I wouldny go near their chips, no, I wouldny thank you for them.'
'Lard. You wouldny feed it to the pigs.'
'A good poke a chips, Wully. They wouldny know them if they came up and took a bite oot their arse.'
'Oh aye. Don't get me started. The fish they're using...'
'They're lettin the fish lie half the week. You need to put a fish straight into the fryer-fresh as you like, nae bother.'
'A good bit of fish for your tea, Wully. Oh aye. There's plenty of them oot there swimming aboot.'
'Well, good luck to them. The cafés will sell a fair few fish suppers come the morra morn. The world and its neighbour'll be oot for the Jubilee the morra.'
'Right enough. I dare say there'll be drink.'
'Oh, there'll be drink all right.'
They paused a moment.
'They were few and far between,' said the first man, 'but I'll tell you, Wully, the best chips ever seen on this island was during the war.' The men fell quiet at that, they looked over the water, and a dog came past barking and chasing seagulls along the promenade. Not for a long time had an evening on the island been so warm and so still.
MARIA TAMBINI lived at 120 Victoria Street. The family café and chip shop was downstairs, its front window filled with giant boxes of chocolates covered in reproduction Renoirs; also, here and there in the window, on satin platforms, were piles of rock that said 'Rothesay'. No matter where you broke it, that's what it said inside: 'Rothesay'. Her mother spread Maria's hair on the pillow and combed it one last time before closing the window to keep out the night. Just a minute before, she had been sitting on the edge of the bed, a silver spoon glinting in her hand, as she fed Maria from a tin of Ambrosia Creamed Rice.
'There,' Rosa said. 'Go to sleep now. Nothing will happen.'
'Tomorrow,' said the girl. Mrs Tambini straightened the edge of the Continental quilt and wiped the mirror with a yellow duster.
'It will all be great,' she said, thinking of things she still had to do. 'Try to keep your head out the quilt, it's nicer for your face.'
Maria closed her eyes. She had never known her father, and his name was never mentioned in the house, but she knew he lived somewhere in America. Sometimes, in the moments just before falling asleep, she would imagine his smiling face under the sun. All her life he remained just that: a picture in her head that appeared in the dark before sleep.
Her mother went from the room and stood for a while at the top of the stairs. Through the open window in the bathroom she could hear Frances Bone, the woman who lived at the top of the next stairwell over, listening to the shipping forecast. Mrs Bone listened to the forecast every night and often in the day too, if she caught it. Standing there, Rosa admitted to herself that it was not so annoying as she often made out: she actually liked the sound of the words coming from the radio-'Forties, Cromarty, southeast, veering south or southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6. Rain then showers, moderate or good'-and after Maria was asleep she stood there and listened.
People were laughing down in the shop and Rosa wished someone would go and bring that dog inside. She caught the look of the Firth of Clyde through the glass over the front door. For a second the sea and the distant lights were for Rosa alone. She remembered she needed Hoover bags, and passing over the last stairs she thought of an old song belonging to her father. She remembered her father most clearly when she thought of those old Italian songs he sang, and at the same time, without much fuss or grief, she thought of him coughing blood in the hours before he died.
Giovanni was slapping fish in a tray of batter and then laying them in the fryer. He caught himself in the silver top and immediately thought about his hair; it had always been the way with Giovanni: several times an hour he would go into the backshop and take a comb through his black hair. When he smiled and showed his good teeth, the women at the tables would look up and in that moment some would consider whether they hated or pitied their husbands. Giovanni rattled a basket of chips in the fryer and went through the back with a sort of swagger.
Rosa was scouring the top of the freezer with pink detergent paste. She looked over her shoulder as Giovanni came through, and she tutted. 'This place is pure black so it is,' she said, scrubbing now in circles, her head down, the paste going under her fingernails. 'I work myself to the bone in here to keep this place clean and nobody else seems to bother their arse. It's bloody manky so it is. Why people don't clean after theirselves I don't know.'
She paused. Mention of the efforts she made in life always caused tears to come into her eyes.
'All we need now is a visit from the men, that would just suit you all fine to sit there and for the men to come in and see all this. Hell slap it into you, I say. I try my best and I just get it all thrown back at me. There's no a bugger gives a shite. I'd be as well talking to the wall. If the men come and shut down this café for dirt then hell slap it into you. I could run a mile so I could. I could just put on my coat and run a mile.'
Giovanni moved the peelings from the big sink and ran the cold water over his hands. When he'd dried them he went to put his hand on Rosa's shoulder but she pulled away. 'See what I mean,' she said, picking up the dish-towel. 'Everything's just left lying about for me to pick up.' But when Giovanni turned to go back into the shop she was shaking as she stood at the sink and she put her arm behind her and stopped him. She turned and buried her head in his chest and he sighed. 'Come on Rosa,' he said. 'You're just tired. There's that much on your mind.'
Rosa cried so often and so predictably that no one really noticed she was crying. Her eyes were always red. People seldom asked what was wrong or if they could help; she was the type, they said, who would cry at the drop of a hat. For all the years they'd known her she had been ...