The man with bad make up.
This story is a followup on ‘I’m a weirdo and I know it’
‘Lets camp over there, at the blue car’,
‘What blue car?’ I haven’t got my glasses on so any detail in the landscape is a blur to me.
With a deep sigh, Alexander starts a description of the landscape. As always, I just don’t see it, even if I had my glasses on.
‘How did a blue car end up there, is there a road going there?’
‘No. Must be washed up there by the sea.’
As we paddle closer the picture changes. It is like looking at clouds and see what kind of shapes they make. Could it be blue plastic barrels? No, washed up plastic sheets?
The closer we come the odder the scene becomes, the heather and the Rowantree, the grass, it looks a bit unnatural. And suddenly we see a head of a man looking over one of the walls, looking angry at us. Is he going to throw rocks at us? And why is he wearing makeup?
‘What do you want!’
‘I am sorry,’ Alexander answered, ‘We were looking for a place to put up our tent for the night. But we will find another beach. Sorry for bothering you.’
This seems to be the right password. The man comes from behind the wall. I expected a big bloke, but this small man appears. He is wearing an interesting combination of a blue T-shirt and skinny orange spotted legs in big yellow wellies.
‘No, it is fine. Hi, my name is Tom. I apologize for my rudeness just now. A few nights ago I had some intruders who also came by kayak, they ignored me completely. I don’t want that to happen again.’
I get out of the kayak and shake his hand. On closer observation, he has blue eyes tattooed on his eyelids and black spots on his face. This is not a young man, he must be close to 60. I’m bursting with curiosity, but it seems inappropriate to ask a question about it just now. Alexander and Tom are chatting and I am can’t help just looking at the man. What, how, when, WHY…?
‘When you are ready, pop over to the house for tea. I will put the kettle on.’
And he walks away. What house? The derelict bothy could hardly qualify as a house.
‘Wow’, I say to Alex when he left, ‘What a character. He sounds so English, did you see his legs?’
Alexander and I change into dry clothes, put the kayaks above the high tide line and have lunch. We want to know everything about this man. How did he end up on this east coast beach on Skye?
We walk over the carefully laid out narrow pebble paths in the same direction as Tom had disappeared. The blue plastic we saw from the water, turns out to be the roof cover for a low shelter made from the leftovers of the old bothy. A strong incense smell comes from a doorway.
‘That is for keeping the midgies at bay’, Tom explains.
We enter the narrow doorway and walk in a narrow room which looks like a kitchen. There is a rough wooden work surface covert with a heavy plastic sheet. Some creative use of wooden crates and stones make shelving to put his food supply in. He has a gas burner and several plastic wash basins and a colourful mix of plastic fisherman gloves. A small opening in the wall shows us another narrow room which acts as a bedroom just big enough to stretch out in. More wooden fish crates used as shelving, a black sleeping bag on a mattress. Several books and knick-knacks on the shelves and no pictures.
I am soaking up the entire scene before me. It strikes me how clean and organised the place is.
‘Coffee or tea? Tom asks. ‘Or would you rather have a beer, I also have a white Chardonnay.’
We squeeze ourselves on some improvised seats in the cramped kitchen. On the gas burner, he cooks water for coffee.
‘I’m ex-military, I served in Zaire, now called Congo, Rhodesia and South Africa. I got out in the 80ies when Maggy was in charge. I could not find a job and found civilian life difficult, so I thought “If I look like a freak and live like a freak, people will want to pay money to take pictures of me or to write about me”. So I got tattooed as a leopard.’
‘Why a leopard print?’ I ask curiously while looking at a long orange spotted arm passing me on eye level as he pours the water on the instant coffee.
‘It is the thing that the guy holding the tattoo machine could do best. And I was fine with that. But the whole thing did not go according to plan. Those management guys in London did not care about me and sent no-one to meet me.’
Really, is that the whole reason behind the choice of tattoo? So, he could have been covered with butterflies? At the same time I feel sorry for him about his big plan falling through.
‘What brought you to this east facing beach with the only sun in the morning?’ Alexander asks.
‘This had a town nearby, this bothy and fresh water, looked like I could live here, so I stayed. Twenty years now this summer.’ He avoids looking at us and stares at the 2 steaming coffee mugs. I quickly glance at Alexander and see the amazement I feel, reflected in his eyes.
‘What do you do for food?’ This I really want to know. For me, good food is important to keep up moral. I sip my coffee and look at Tom expectantly.
Well, I paddle across to town with my two kayaks. I paddle in one and fill the other up with stuff. I tow it behind my back to my beach. I shop when I need to.’
He starts to chuckle: ‘Once I had to go across and on my way back the sea was too rough. The ferry scooped me right out of the water and brought me to my beach. With kayaks and all!’
The smile revealed surprisingly healthy looking teeth, only one tooth is missing but the face relaxes a bit.
‘But what do you eat?’ I try again. I’m so full of questions but don’t want to overwhelm him.
‘I have a can of vegetable at seven o’clock in the evening. I drink two pints of beer in the morning, two pints at 12, and a rum at four o’ clock. I do buy cheese and corned beef to feed my gul.’
‘Don’t you eat bread or pasta, potatoes perhaps?’ I ask in wonder.
‘Carbohydrates will make me fat!’ he answers with conviction in his voice.
He did not have much meat on his bones. In fact, he is a tiny little man. This food regime must be working. But what about that amount of alcohol? Is he an alcoholic trying to forget certain things? But I don’t dare to ask him, he looks so fragile. How far can I push him with my questions?
‘But there is a whole sea with fish, don’t you fish? Alexander asks in amazement.
‘Cleaning fish is very messy, I don’t like messy, so I don’t eat fish.’ Tom answers practically.
‘And what about a fire?
‘I heat my can of veg on my gas burner, I’m perfectly happy with that.’
‘Not even for warmth?’ Alexander tries again.
‘If I am cold I go and lay down in my sleeping bag, but it doesn’t get very cold up here. Besides, making fires is always very messy.’
‘I’m sorry for not talking very clearly, my tongue is quite out of practice. I don’t get a lot of people around to talk to,’ Tom apologises. ‘Besides, I already talked enough for a lifetime while I was in the army, I don’t want to talk much anymore with people.’
‘Don’t you get lonely here, all on your own?’ I ask carefully.
‘No,’ He reply fiercely. ‘I used to have a job in the youth hostel in Kyle of Lochalsh but I gave that up. You know, I attract the wrong kind of attention with my looks. I’ve been beaten up on a few occasions. I don’t want that to happen anymore.’
We visited him whenever we were in the neighbourhood. He would recognise us and called us “The Dutch”, but never remembered our names. There were some topics of conversation he did not like to talk about. Religion and a certain meeting he had with a German girl. There were things that were bothering him but we did not dare to ask him about. He looked so sad when the conversation went that way.
At 60 he was still looking good and was strong enough to keep the lifestyle going. Going towards his 70 he could not keep it up. He could not manage the boats to get his shopping so he went more often. The guys from the nearby fish farm were keeping an eye on him as well as the people in Kyle of Lochalsh. It was touching to see how a community takes care of someone who has chosen to live in isolation. Not the odd one out but the odd one in.
Eventually, he was offered a flat in Bradford, a small town just over the Skye bridge on Skye. We wondered how he would adapt to living in a house and all its comforts.
We found out that Tom died of old age in June 2016 at the age of 80.
P.s. Slow traveling is meeting people in their own environment. It is not always fitting to ask for a picture in that situation and we did not feel the need for it at that moment. Tom Leppard is in our memory but now, with people reading this story they can hardly believe or imagine how he would look like, is he real?
If you like to check real images, checkout the video https://youtu.be/g8-cbPLEZ58
or google images (tom leppard skye)
Dear Charlotte. I’ve heard this story several times before, but to read it like this, I feel a bit sad for this guy. It has not been an easy life for him, I think…. I’m surprised to read that he lived such a long life! Love you!
Dear Elly, Tom was a lovely person to meet. Life wasn’t always kind to him but he dealt with it the best way possible. Tom had no regrets about any of his decisions, the tattoo, his lifestyle, nothing. It made me question the way I live my own life. Could I live the same way he did? Could I live with nothing and off grid? Could you? I think Tom was an inpiration for a lot of people and he lived a full and for himself, satisfying life. Love you too!