Charlie Edson pulled the stool closer to the bar and stiffly creaked his arthritic way onto it. “Tis a rare old night Alf, I’ll not be stopping like as not.”
Alf, smoothing his beard having finished filling the dimpled glass, smiled, “Aye, and it’s a rare few times I’ve heard you say that since Annie passed, before that an’ all. Not seen you go early doors often neither.”
Charlie smiled, “probably right Alf, probably right enough.” He drained half the dark glass, “still, that mist’s all wrong for time o’year, an’ sea’s up an’ all. Had to come up West End way, either that or get a drenching before Cherry Lane.”
“It’s only early June Charlie, summer’s still a work in progress, like it or not.”
“Hmm. Well, feels like Autumn, and to my mind June should be summer.”
“At least it isn’t snowing, eh? It’s like time lad, goes quicker at our age, and isn’t what it were eh?”
“You’re not wrong. Another Alf please. Warm me up before I brave the summer blizzards.” He passed the glass over and looked about the sparse bar. “Who’s yon lass? I seem to know her from somewhere.” He nodded in the direction of a youngish woman huddled in the corner on her own.
“Don’t right know, I’ve been wondering same thing, can’t place her though. Not local, or I don’t think so, I know most. Mebbe she looks like someone.”
“We all look like someone Alf, just some are luckier than us mind.” They chuckled, comfortable and familiar in their roles. As they drifted through the detritus of drifting days, Charlie glanced at her in between times, dredging through memories, rooting for something that stubbornly refused to surface, the parallel of the crossword clue that drove him out here in the first place. “Alf.”
“Charlie. Another? Thought you weren’t stopping like.” He reached for the glass.
“Aye. Well. Can’t be having you go hungry can I? Nor your house as empty as mine.” He looked across to the corner again. “Remember Mick Bradshaw?”
“Mick? Mick.” Alf took the money and leant on the shining counter, frowning out of the window.
“Aye. Mick Bradshaw. Worked at Monaghan’s, few years back like, then, of course twas. Everything’s a few years back these days. Wife left him for that flash teacher chap from Matlock way, you remember, just after the place closed.” He waited whilst Alf wrestled with memories of a thousand drinkers. “Tall fellow, beard, always did the coconut shy up at Glebe fête, you remember.”
“Got him. Wife was an odd woman as I remember, wanted all her trees same height or summat weird. He moved off’t lakes didn’t he? Windermere or somesuch. Barrow praps.” He came through the hatch, lit his pipe and drew up a stool. “What brings him to mind?”
“That lass,” he tilted his head, “I reckon that’s his daughter. What was her name now…” Alf shook his head and drank. “Annie used to babysit her when she was a little’un.” He tapped his feet and drummed his fingers against the bar, musing. “Nicola. That’s it. Nicola Bradshaw.”
“Can’t say as I remember, must be, what, twenty years at least, and can’t think she was a big drinker back then.” There was silence as, pipe smoke curling about, they thought of decades of beers, mists and departures.
“Excuse me. Could I have another please. Lager, the cheap one.”
“Of course.” Alf rested his pipe carefully on the rim of an empty ashtray and went back behind the bar. Charlie turned on his stool.
“Don’t mind my asking, you Mick Bradshaw’s lass? Nicola isn’t it?”
“I am. I have to say I’m shocked rather that anyone remembers though, it was such a long time ago, and I was only young then.” She didn’t look overjoyed to be back in Charlie’s eyes. “Did you know Dad then?”
“Aye. Course. Everyone knew Mick, even Alf here, though his dementia’s bad tonight,” he winked, “a good man. How is he? I worked with him until the old place closed… He back with you then? Be good to see him again.”
She shook her head. “No. He’s living up by Ambleside now, sailing and walking. Retired last year, and I don’t think he’s likely to pop by anytime soon.”
“Retired? Hmm. I supposed he would be that age now. By God, that makes me feel old.”
“You are old.” Alf placed the glass down, “two pounds please love.”
She took the glass, lifted it an inch from the wood, “My Annie used to sit for you when you were a baby,” she looked slightly uncomfortable, “what brings you back then? Can’t have many mates left after all this time, fancied seeing what’s changed?”
“Too much and not enough I say,” Alf added, returning to his pipe.
She looked at the bar towels intently, spoke to the dark polished wood more than either of the old men, “this and that I suppose,” she spoke quietly, “a whim and a duty I suppose. Something. Things call you back sometimes.” She dipped her head, tried to mask them, but tears dripped. “Sorry, must be drunker than I thought,” she sniffed and wiped her cheeks, “it’s way harder than I thought, coming back.”
“I remember the first time you got drunk lass. Pernod and dry cider or something equally disgusting, had t’call your dad up, carried thee home that night we did.” She smiled at him, “I miss your day y’know, he were a good man.”
Shortly before midnight, Charlie turned the corner into Brook Street and opened his front door, stepped into the house where he still expected to find Annie waiting for him. Practice didn’t change that. As he climbed the steep stairs slowly, noticing again the loose stair rod, thinking again that he must fix that, as he had every night for two years, he thought of Nicola, wondered what had upset her so, what brought her back. They’d talked a lot, but she’d said little, joined in with two old men’s reminiscences whilst saying nothing of herself. He said goodnight to the photograph by his bed and clambered into his side.
He lay awake a long while, staring at the street light illuminating the ceiling, thinking of Monaghan’s for the first time in years, of the people he’d known, Margaret, Mick, Albert Franks, Tommy… the drinking nights, summer days when he wanted to be out cycling the countryside with Annie, not stuck in a noisy factory without sight of the fields. Of the last days, when everyone knew what was coming, when the anger of those days stalked the factory floor hand in hand with desperation. There were the youngsters who’d spat at old Harry Monaghan that last day. Harry who’d taken him on as an apprentice, promised him a job for life if he worked hard. He’d not seen Harry for a long while that day, his son ran the place by that point of course, but he’d come down. He didn’t see many of them anymore. They’d been close then. Many moved on of course, and he wasn’t the only one on his own. He thought of marrying Annie Rumbelow and of moving in with her parents, the old man’s death soon after. He thought of bringing Christopher up in this house, of days in the country with Annie. He’d phone Christopher in the morning he decided, and, not being one to dwell, drifted away to sleep.
She cried again that night, quietly, incessantly, staring at the pale ceiling. Without her childhood friend, she found it hard to be brave.
He was dead.
She was awake.
She threw French windows open to the morning rain and stood in the aperture, an echo of Aunt Daisy twenty years before. The rain caught her toes, tickling them coolly against the threshold, dappling her nightdress as the chill winds of June storms lashed and licked her thighs refreshingly.
She felt the morning, felt the living rain with its rich grassiness and uncaring chill. In front of her wound the narrowing path, behind her nothing, but she saw Aunt Daisy in her white dress that summer, long ago, relishing the momentary breeze, leant against the door frame, teacup delicately in hand, all cares wafting on dandelion dreams because when you’re six, adults don’t have cares, and Aunt Daisy was at that moment beautiful, framed in the cotton summer light.
He gave up the garden some time ago. He never did give up on work. She’d never realised it before, but now with the chill of a clinging nightie embracing her morning mind with clarity, she saw the dandelions, the groundsel, the grass inching its fingers across the once neat gravel, the vetch and clover, the bindweed winding tendrils lovingly about the unpruned roses straggling out beyond their allotted borders. The wisteria dripped heavily ont her hair as it probed inquisitively, peeking in windows, clutching at the off-white walls toward the doorway, reaching tentatively for dominion. Once he’d not have allowed it. Once.
Stepping out, she looked intently at the border’s weed strewn neglect freshly, fascinated by every grassy clump amid the chrysanthemums, the thistles wrestling the daisies, not feeling the cold wrap of fabric on her skin, delighting subconsciously in the rich feel of fine gravel wet between her toes. Walking on away from the gaping doors, away from the inquisitorial creeper, she made her way toward the sunken garden, wending her way sodden past overgrown urns, seeing encroaching flurries of grass where once stark edging argued regimentally with bedding plants flaunting primary coloured brazenness. Her skin goosebumped and still the drizzle came, patterning her footsteps with rhythm.
The jumping steps, shallow and gleaming, lead on down to the futile sundial and beyond to the summer house, with its families of hereditary escaped mice squeaking in tongues of times they’d once known with a little girl named Maggie. Now, she sat between the sad urns, the stone cold on her thighs, rain wet on her weeping hair, her shoulders slumped in memory of him. Smooth lawns, the pond’s glittering gold flashes as Aunt Daisy laughed with Grandma after a trip to the beach, of father returning to sip tea beneath the walnut. Of father smiling in Panama summers with his book and pipe. Always with his pipe. She sat not focussing on the summer house until shivers of rain clutched her tears.
With an insipid sun attempting at claw some respectability back to notions of summer, in jeans and stripy jumper she directed her boots down Cherry Lane, forcing them on past the gaps where trees ought to be, past the place where there was still a worn gap at the bottom of the hedge, under The Oak, and on along to Magpie Cottage. It hadn’t changed much. Today it looked preoccupied, paths thoughtful beneath soggy swathes of last year’s leaves and straggling couch grass. Feeling foolish at the gate, she stepped slowly up the path she used to skit up and down, careful toward the blue door and its stained glass. Pulling the tarnished brass bell, hearing the clattering jangle inside, she stepped back from the overhanging porch, turned and waited. Looking out over the tangled hedge at the sea, at the darkly thoughtful trees, at her childhood.
“Nicola?” She turned back to the house, “come in, you didn’t need to ring: you never have.”
Esther looked awful, slouching away from the doorway in a damp nightie and baggy jogging bottoms, a dowsed shadow before the conscience stricken Nicola.
They walked up the lane, pushed through the hedge by The Oak, crossed the rising meadow and found the shaded dell that overlooked the sea, sitting side by side on a great rotting trunk.
“It’s years since I came over here,” Esther spoke softly, to know Nicola was listening didn’t seem that important, “we stopped coming soon after you left.” Nicola turner, looked at her, more than a glance, “everything seemed to change then, no one said anything. We just didn’t come. No one ever does say anything do they, when stuff changes, it just does and by the time you’ve noticed, well, it’s changed. I think it was Danny. Might have been me, but I think it was him. It was always his place wasn’t it.” Nicola nodded, but Esther wasn’t looking, “the first time I came, he stood up there,” she pointed at the big beech, “shouting, with his arms out, ‘I’m the king of the castle’. He was, wasn’t he?”
“I remember this log being his pirate ship for a long while.”
Esther smiled, “I remember that. He was captain, all that bowing down when the king came aboard in port.” Her smile lingered, “and talking. Lots and lots of talking. We talked lots then didn’t we. Probably all nonsense, but it didn’t seem nonsense. Talk.” She paused, “camping. Running home at dusk because we didn’t feel like the Famous Five anymore. Remember Kate trying to climb after him? She couldn’t get anywhere near him.”
“I used to get so much grief. That time – those times – coming home covered in mud, grass or blackberry juice. I’d been told not to go out in my new clothes…”
“We kept all sorts of things stashed in this log. Remember?”
“I do. Important stuff too, paper, string, conkers, candles, sweets. They never seemed to last did they? What else? There was so much.”
“Danny’s mostly. He always had something, something really important.”
“However weird or useless, it was always important.” They should have laughed, but smiled at the sea instead.
“Seemed wonderful then though.” Only the wind in drying summer leaves found an answer, and they shared the staring silence. “Whatever happened Nic? To the people we were?”
There was no answer, and they sat in thoughts as slowly the sun grew in confidence and the sea changed moods beyond the cliff’s edge, dark patches being harried away as clouds finally lost their battle with wind and warmth. Esther hugged her knees, feet drawn up on the flaking damp bark, beside her Nicola rested back on her hands, legs stretched out, both relishing the rekindled companionship of silence rich with the comfort of steamed puddings and Garibaldis. Time passed in its shortening way until Esther straightened, “coffee then?”
Into a town that confused. Nicola recognised the roads, knew the bends of the streets, the ways and cut throughs, but nothing was where it should be; shops that should be there weren’t, nudged out by things that shouldn’t be there, their familiarity from other places redoubling their alien nature. Buses were wrong. Trees tripped her up by vanishing or creeping their size up on her. Esther just saw places he wouldn’t go to. They went to Starbucks. He would never have gone their either.