It was decided that the Penn Beacon Residents’ Association Meeting would be held in the back bar of the Eight Kings after the original venue was deemed, at the last minute, to be a possible risk to public health.
The mould, Gareth Turnbull, caretaker, considered, had crept, unchecked, slowly across the kitchen wall of the community centre for far too long, & now, to nostrils beyond his own, both the cloakroom & womens’ toilet had taken on an unpleasant, fusty-blue, odour, also.
“And, finally,” said Reverend Jackson, closing the Michaelmas service and rubbing his trim beard & nodding toward the hall across the road through the stain glass. “Creeping damp has rendered the venue unusable for the foreseeable.”
He was from the mainland originally (“down from Brighton, for my sins”) & being from that part of the country, had this unusual & quite exotic way with words that could cause furrows of concentration, or confusion, to grow in the brows of his congregation.
He drove a yellow Volvo. It had a patch of sticky, black masking on the back bumper where it had cracked, in a mis-judged three-point turn, on a wheelbarrow in the area known locally as the Lawnsheds. A selection of loose cassettes skidded up & down the length of dash, & there were generally a pair of wellingtons, bits of outdoor gear & a stack of old BirdWatcher, tied up with string, that he kept meaning to take to the charity shop, on the backseat. He would always stop for a walker, of which there were a few, out on the long stretch of road that was poorly served by local bus services to and from the mainland. Only last week, he’d pulled over for two boys carrying skateboards in the rain just outside Motherwell. Just scoot that stuff on to the floor, he said into the rearview. The first boy pushed the muddy boots aside with the edge of his board & sat on the stack of magazines. It made for an awkward ride, so he put on some Ultravox. He told them that he favoured Midge Ure’s voice over that of John Foxx & the boys looked quickly at each other & the one sat on the stack of magazines eventually said, “This is us.”
They called themselves Islanders. And, though Penn Beacon is sometimes still referred to locally as The Fire Isle, it is infact, a peninsula. It is melded to the mainland by the never-ending, slow accumulation of millions of tons of blue shingle drift that is pushed east along the bay, banking in the fleet between Weston on the mainland & the north end of Penn Beacon proper. Long before the first lighthouse was built there had always been a beacon on Penn, ready to be torched as warning to approaching ships, friend or foe. In 1588, Elizabeth the First commissioned a series of Armada Beacons to be erected the length of the south coast as an early warning system to guard against the threat of the Spanish fleet.
“Our man of the match, Gareth, tells me that a not-so expensive, but ultimately necessary, course of antifungal treatment will combat the problem. So, I will leave the matter in his not incapable hands.” This rearrangement suited many of the residents. The Eight Kings’ back bar was warm, dogs were welcome, & bar snacks provided. “In the interim, tomorrow’s residents’ meeting will go ahead in The Eight Kings, whilst, sadly, Tuesday’s Bring A Bake & Birdwatch is postponed.”
The Eight Kings was busy. And, being a Monday evening, the Weston Wheelers were in. The cyclists, in their black tights & bright jerseys, were dancing to a surprising selection of Disney tunes that had been found on the jukebox. Whenever the music stopped, the public bar filled with the sounds of glassy voices & pedal cleats on the boards. The Crabb sisters sidled round the edge of the room, stepped into the smaller back bar & took to the table beneath the sea-facing window as it allowed the last of the sinking sun. It was a good turn out. The council’s proposal to house the county’s latest refugees in the disused naval base buildings was something that had fired local feelings.
Daisy Crabb, standing, chaired, & Rose, horn-rimmed spectacles bridged, took minutes in tiny, tidy hand. They lived in the shadow of the lighthouse in the whitewash cottage, with an ancient, arthritic Springer called Speckle. Being the two senior teachers at Penn Beacon Infants, the Crabbs were the obvious candidates to preside over the hastily prepared meeting. Speckle settled, occasionally farting, at their feet.
The meeting quickly degenerated into a slang between those who felt that the Islanders should welcome the outsiders & those who opposed this notion altogether. It was weighted, Rose minuted, a little to the latter.
Gareth stood at the jump, fisting bar nuts from a bowl into his mouth & sort of following the meeting in the mirror. Someone nudged in beside him. “There’s more piss on a pub peanut than there’s salt.” It was the Ffooks boy.
“So I heard,” said Gareth. He swallowed back the last of his cider & wiped his fingers on his overalls. They shook hands. Tommy fashioned a cigarette & called for a pint of Grinner.
“And another one here, love.” He touched Gareth’s elbow.
The Ffooks ran The Lusty Monroe out of Southwell, hauling lobster. A father-son operation. Both named Tommy. So worn & weathered were the Ffooks’ faces that it was, in not such a poor light, or even from a short distance, often difficult to differentiate between the younger & the elder. Both were stooped & broad-shouldered, generous men with yellow fingers. Their cheeks held an apple-red glow all year round & only served to further imbue their white, unruly beards with notions of the sea & harvest.
The old man had lost a finger, almost to the knuckle, in the pot pulley, the summer he met Margo, his bride-to-be & Tommy’s mother. He wore his wedding band on the finger of his right hand. Everyone knew the story of Tommy, senior, & his finger. It was a tightknit community & the nub of very few tales got away. The worst, or best, thing that could happen would be the embellishment of personal stories as they passed from mouth to mouth & generation to generation. Over the years, his finger, it was said, had been lost to a monsterous lobster, severed in a slammed storm-hatch & devoured by a wronged Conger. Sometimes, in solitary moments, waiting for the kettle to boil, the bath to fill, brushing his teeth, he would hold his hand up before him & try to fill the space between his fingers with something other than nothing. In truth he grew to quite enjoy the angry eel rumour & quietly began to weave a loose & colourful tale that he might tell any future grandchildren, should they come, in which his finger would be found in the belly of an eel brought ashore &… but he could never quite imagine how this would end in any satisfactory way for a child’s story.
They drank another drink & then a police car pulled up outside the pub & a police officer whom Gareth didn’t recognise came into the back bar, took off his hat, patted the air with it down until the noise level subsided. He listened & spoke with one or two. One or two left. He nodded & rubbed his chin & got back into his police car. The caretaker said to Tommy that he would get back over to the hall, finish the second coat. “Be about an hour. This lot’ll be done by then.” So, he left, too.
“Hester, one in the pipe for Gareth. One for you, too,” said Tommy.
The light in the office was still on at the community hall. “Still here, Vicar?”
“Still here. How was the meeting?”
“Chaos. The outcome was already settled I reckon.”
The vicar was wearing a dust mask over his face; the kind of thing that painters & decorators or Japanese tourists wore. “This hasn’t done much good. My head’s pounding.”
He collected up a pile of papers from his desk. Some notes & a stack of photocopies. “Would you put a couple of these up round your end?”
They were posters with a rescheduled date for the Bring A Bake And Birdwatch. He had added a photo of a Fulmar, from last April’s BirdWatcher. Often mistaken, due to its colour & form, for one of the more common gulls – The Herring, say, or the Blackheaded Gull – The Fulmar is infact from the shearwater family, a relative of the albatross. Its long & narrow wings allow for long distance sea gliding. It will nest early in the year in the rugged & inaccessible rock faces, sand dunes & steep banks familiar to Penn Beacon & is highly protective of these sites. Their cackling call – aark-ag-ag-ag-ag – an ugly warning to those that approach. Come November the nests are abandoned & the Fulmars take to the sea again for winter.
“Sure,” said Gareth.
“I’m off to Weston for fish and chips. Don’t stay long, Gareth.”
Penny Jackson sat at the kitchen table & all the what ifs, what weres & what could’ve beens swam around her head as she watched the bread fail to rise in the oven. It had been this way for some time and now she knew no different. She tried to draw away from her thoughts. She thought about the summer he & she met. But actually what was there to think about? A collection of soft images & feelings stitched together with snatches of conversations. The warmth of his touch. The warmth of their bed. The sunlight & the shadow on the water as it rose & fell a long way below their feet, below everyone’s feet, on the West Pier. It was all memory now. The accrual of tiny thoughts & experiences, one after another, slowly rolled together & blended with tears & laughter & wine & bath & dish water & regret & sadness & mundanity & prayer. She thought about the missing child as a hole in their family & she wondered how he thought. It was something that never rose to the surface. How could it? There was no time. This caused her to suddenly say the word out loud. Time. Then she listened to the silence. She was aware of herself in the window, held there only as a cold reflection, a sort of soft crayon study, a representation of a woman in a kitchen. She slipped into that space & withdrew to a Brighton of her mind, until, slowly, she returned to the surface, brought back by the sound of the unseen waves bringing the shingle.
Penny listened to the sea & she wondered if she might not go outside & walk at its shore. But she didn’t. There was the loaf & Nigel (she glanced at the clock & found it, for some moments, not to be moving) would be home soon with the dinner. Anyway, she realised at last that her boots were in the car and so that settled that.
They had been out birdwatching over Monkseaton Marsh. Nigel, as ever, was keen to share his knowledge. And it did impress her. All tiny birds to her were sparrows & all dirty birds were pigeons, followed by crows, who represented, being black, death &, lastly, seagulls. Seagulls brought to mind split bin bags & detritus, generally. Or, actually, to her, coffee.
One Saturday, she had taken the bus over to the mainland. There was, by all accounts, a good Arts & Craft market in Dorchester. The 301 stopped in the bus station at Weymouth & everyone who was getting off there got off & everyone who was getting on there got on. The driver started the engine, then stopped it again, got off & smoked a cigarette. A gull was walking around between the shelters, the way they do. She watched it from where she was sat on the bus. It walked over to a discarded cup of coffee that was stood by the kerb & began to drink from it with stabbing motions.
There were owls of course, but she’d only ever seen them in his copies of BirdWatcher, &, perhaps on a documentary about the Norfolk Broads. But he was in awe of them. Particularly the Barn Owl. It was good to see him come alive. She held on tighter to his arm & nuzzled into the noisy wax jacket & listened as he read from the book a description of a bird & its habits & its habitat & its home. She asked him if he’d like to come back as a bird & of course he said yes. And before she could ask what bird, he’d said an owl. And she thought that this was quite clever & apt as he certainly did stay up late reading – not that owls read, but there was this common idea of their wisdom, wasn’t there? She pictured him high in a tree in the night, listening to the sounds of the creatures around him. His big eyes & his round features & his careful beard – why, he even looked like an owl! She laughed again & saw all at once that the clock hands had moved quite quickly around the face. She poured herself another glass of wine & worked her way out of the cold reflection of the kitchen window & into the warm square orange glow of the oven & the life within.
Before too long, she was crying again, quietly sobbing and saying stupid, stupid, stupid and laughing out loud at the same time at the thought of the little boy, the has-been, the what-if, the would-be, turning in her belly, though of course, he would have been almost four by now. Then she thought again of her husband, the owl & she began to laugh. A proper belly laugh through the tears.
The old Volvo pulled up in the drive. She went upstairs, two at a time in her tights. She put some water on her face & pushed her hair this way & that. She blew her nose on some toilet paper. As she did so she heard Nigel’s voice downstairs, but missed the gist of what he was saying. She stuffed the soft paper up her sleeve. He was in the kitchen, arranging two large fish & chip dinners across two dinner plates. “Over generous with the chips,” he was saying, but more so to himself, or somehow, as if he were talking to an injured child. He looked up as she came into the room, placed a chip into his mouth & said something about a fire over at the old naval base at Eastwell. She began to cry.