Authors: Oliver Clarke
By Oliver Clarke
Copyright 2013 Oliver Clarke
Peter Pan’s Playground, with roller coaster and big wheel
in the foreground in front of the Palace Hotel, Southend
Copyright 2009 Louisa Hennessy, used with permission
Jenny Troya watched the man sitting in her cafe and wondered what it was about him that made her feel nervous. When he’d walked in and quietly ordered a cup of coffee she had thought it was the long scar on his cheek, but watching him sitting there she realised it was more than that. He wore an air of trouble like other men wore aftershave; it hung around him like a cloud. She’d seen men like that growing up in Cuba, in the
her grandmother had owned. Men who came to eat at strange times of the day or night. Who sat at the corner tables and talked in low tones. This man reminded her of those
from her childhood but there was a gentleness to him too, a vulnerability in his eyes that spoke of the boy he had been before he became a man. And there was a sadness there. She had seen it in his eyes when he handed his money over to her and she could see it now in the slump of his shoulders as he sat and slowly drank his coffee. He intrigued her, she decided. Something about him made her want to know more about him. She’d tried to talk to him but it was like talking to a rock so in the end she gave up, deciding he was just another soul passing through. She saw a lot of them.
I’m not unhappy, Joel Matheson thought as he sipped the cooling coffee in front of him and tried to decide what his next move was. Sometimes it felt like his whole life had been about trying not to be unhappy. Every step he took intended to move him away from the blackness that haunted him, or at least to help him forget that it loomed there behind him. Every drink. Every woman.
Today he wasn’t unhappy, there was too much swirling around inside his hea
d for that. He was scared. He knew that as surely as he knew his own name. What he didn’t know was whether he was more scared of what he was running to or what he was running from.
He looked at the window of the cafe and the world beyond it. It wasn’t summertime, far from it, but it was still good to be by the coast. The air outside might be freezing and harsh with the spray of salt from the sea but it was clean. Free from the pollution and constant mecha
nical noise that he was used to. Southend wasn’t far from London but in some ways it felt like another world.
He’d never been to the seaside as a kid but now he was there he fel
t like making up for lost time. Maybe later he’d brave the cold and take a walk on the pier. If nothing else it would distract him for a while from having to figure out what he was going to do next.
Every time someone opened the door the temperature in the place dropped by four degrees and it was filled with the smell of fish and seaweed and the raucous cries of a dozen seagulls. The cafe wasn’t busy so the door didn’t open often but when it did he’d glance up at whoever was coming in. It passed the time. There was a newspaper on the table in front of him but he couldn’t read it. The words just swam around when he looked at them, evading his eyes. When he did manage to focus on them they somehow didn’t make it as far as his brain, or if they did he didn’t manage to decipher them. It was like a natural
defence mechanism, his brain was stopping any new information getting in because it had too much to process already. Too many things to make sense of.
So instead Joel looked at his hands as they played with the coffee cup and tried to think. A radio was playing, tuned to some local commercial station, and the sounds coming out of it kept distracting him and breaking his train of thought. All in all he decided he didn’t mind that so much. The
Hispanic woman behind the counter tried to talk to him a few times, asking him if he was visiting, what his plans were, where he was from. Joel answered as briefly as he could each time. Not being rude but letting her know he didn’t want to talk. She didn’t mean any harm, he told himself, even if she was annoying the hell out of him. He could feel her eyes on him now, boring into him.
Joel had managed to make two drinks and a sandwich last a couple of hours which kept
had him out of the cold at least. He’d checked his wallet before walking into the cafe, calculating how much money he could spare whilst still leaving enough for the next few days. He needed to keep a low profile until he figured it all out. No-one knew he’d come to Southend but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be looking for him there. After what he’d done they’d be looking for him everywhere.
As the clock on the wall ticked past 4:30 he decided he should leave. It was just him and the woman. The last of the other customers had left, leaving the two of them to sit in silence pretending to listen to the radio. The woman’s greying hair was tied up in a bun on the top of head that was so tight it stretched her skin back and made it hard to tell exactly what her expression was. He thought she was starting to scowl at him in a way that was meant to tell him he’d outstayed his welcome. Or maybe she was just upset that he didn’t want to share his life story. Either way it was time to go.
So it was that he was reaching under the table for his bag when the door opened again and he didn’t see the blonde walk in. When he looked up she was standing at the counter with her back to him. She was talking to the woman behind the counter who wasn’t scowling now which was an improvement. It looked to him like they knew each other. He couldn’t make out what they were saying over the radio but the older woman was smiling and her visitor was talking animatedly. They looked happy, the two of them. Joel glanced away, his eyes landing on the door the woman had come through. It was starting to get dark out there, the light fading as the sun went down. Definitely time to leave. He needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night and he didn’t fancy trawling the unfamiliar streets in the dark.
He stood and lifted his bag up onto the table. It was heavy, he wasn’t used to the weight of it yet and it still surprised him each time he picked it up. He left it there while he picked his coat up off the back of the chair and slipped his arms into it. The bag had been alright when it was under the table but out in plain sight like that it made him nervous. He buttoned the coat and hoisted the bag up, swinging it over one shoulder. “Thanks,” he said to the woman with the too tight face.
“Goodbye,” she said back and as she did the blonde turned and looked at him.
She was older than he’d expected, late twenties probably so not much younger than him. Her face was pretty, not stunning but worth a second glance. Her eyes though, they were beautiful. He only looked into them for a split second before she broke the contact but that was long enough for him to know that she wasn't happy at all. It was so clear he didn't know how the other woman could be taken in by her fake smile. Maybe she wanted to believe everything was alright in the world. The blonde turned away from him again. The look on her face had told him she thought he was bad news but had there been a hint of something else underneath the disapproval? Maybe.
He was used to that hard, go away look. He got it from people when he walked too close to them on the street sometimes. He didn’t know why. The scar on his cheek didn’t help but could it be just that? Some nights when he’d had a beer or two he’d stand in front of a mirror and look at himself and try and figure out what it was but he couldn’t see it. It was there though, whatever it was. He might not be able to see it in his own face but he could see it in other people’s when they looked at him.
The blonde though,
she wasn’t just giving him the look. In that split second he’d seen something else, the glimmer of attraction maybe. But then she’d turned and he’d lost it.
He pulled the door open and the cold hit him along with the smell and the noise of the birds. He stepped out into it and felt it close around him. He could hear the sea now too and while he didn’t like the stink or the temperature he preferred the sounds out here. Gone was the DJ chatter from the radio and in its place he had the white noise of nature. He didn’t know where he was going so he just walked for a while, hands in his pockets and arms tight against him to keep in the warmth. The cafe was out of the town a bit, he’d chosen it deliberately for that reason,
figuring it would be quiet. He’d likely have a bit of a walk before he found a hotel or B&B. Maybe he should go back to the cafe and try his luck with the blonde. Turn on the charm and get himself a free room for the night and a roll in the hay to boot. A year ago he would have done it. A month even. He walked on, into the setting sun. He still didn’t really know what he was doing but the peace was helping him think about it. First step was to find somewhere to stay. Somewhere he could leave the bag. After that he didn’t know but he thought that without the weight of it constantly nagging at him he’d be able to think more clearly.
He stopped after a while and put the bag down, giving his shoulder a break. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket.
Four left. That might be it for a while, he couldn’t spare the money for any more. He lit one anyway, pulling the smoke down deep and relishing it.
He was so busy thinking and staring at the sea he didn’t hear the footsteps. The voice just came out of nowhere, cutting through his thoughts and pulling him back
“Got a spare?”
Joel turned and saw the blonde.
“Sure,” he said and held the pack out to her.
The call from Danny that started it all had come out of the blue a week before. Joel had been in another cafe, this one a long way from the seaside. He was having breakfast when his phone rang. Even when he was a bit short of cash he liked to treat himself to a decent fry up at least once a week. When he was a kid breakfast had been his least favourite meal; wherever he was they always seemed to have the shittiest cereal. The telly would usually be on too just to rub it in; morning TV blaring out adverts for Frosties and Coco Pops while he was stuck with Tesco Value
Weetabix. It was always a battle to see how much sugar he could manage to spoon onto it before he got shouted at or his hand slapped away. However much it was never enough to cover the taste of cheap.
He was wiping up ketchup and egg yolk with a bit of bacon when the call came in, the phone display told him the number was blocked but he picked it up anyway.
“It’s me, mate,” Joel recognised Danny’s voice straight away and smiled. He had a way of sticking in your brain, did Danny. A charisma or something that made you like him and want him to like you. Joel had been struck by it when they first met and it hit him again now, the desire to be his friend.
He greeted Danny, asking him how he was.
The other man started speaking before Joel had finished
, “No time for that now, mate, I’ve got a shedload on. This is important though.”
“Meet me at The Exchange tonight, I’ll explain then.”
“Why?” said Joel.
“I’ll tell you later,” said Danny. “That’s the whole point, we need to speak face to face. Besides we haven’t had a beer together for ages.”
That wasn’t true, it had been about a week but that was longer than they usually left it. Danny was the one solid thing in Joel’s life, the one
friend who was always there. More than that he looked up to the older man and there weren’t many people he could say that about. Not now, not ever. His life had been full of people who used him or let him down or just fucked him over for the fun of it. Danny had done none of those things.
Besides, a call from Danny usually meant some work and that was reason enough to say yes.
“Okay, what time?” he said.
Eight o’clock was what Danny had said but at half past he still wasn’t there. Joel had nearly finished his first pint and was trying to decide whether to buy another or walk out the door. It wasn’t like Danny to be late, not at all, and that made Joel think there might be a problem. He touched his phone in his pocket and thought about calling then decided not to. Danny would have a reason.
There were a couple of cute girls chatting to each other at the bar. Every so often one of them would let out a loud drunken giggle. It wasn’t late but they’d probably been there since five, knocking back cocktails and white wine on stomachs with only a lunchtime salad in them. They still had their office gear on, secretaries or something sat up high on bar stools with their long legs on display. Joel decided he’d stick around for one more drink, give Danny a chance to finish up whatever was keeping him.
The girls might provide some entertainment.
He knocked back the beer in his g
lass and stood. One of the pair watched him as he walked up to the bar. She was swaying a little on her stool, smiling too. He ignored her, he’d let them do the work if they were interested. Sometimes he liked to do that with a girl, play it casual rather than make the first move himself. If someone had asked him why he wouldn’t have been able to explain but deep down inside he could feel it. That need to know that he was wanted.
He ordered a lager from the barman, h
anded over the money and turned to walk back to the table with his beer.
“You look like a bad boy,” said the girl who’d been staring at him. The other one giggled.
“Maybe,” he said back, looking at her. She wasn’t bad. If Danny didn’t turn up soon he might take her home. Might take both of them.
“What bad things have you done then?”
He leaned towards her and was about to speak when a hand clapped down on his shoulder. Joel turned back and saw Danny, all smiles and charm, beaming at the secretaries.
“Sorry ladies,” he said, “I just need to borrow my friend here for a few minutes. After that he’s all yours, although I will need him back in one piece in a few days so I’ll have to ask you to be gentle with him.” That got a laugh from both of them. The one who hadn’t spoken to Joel found it so funny she nearly fell off her stool and her friend had to grab her.
“Let me buy you both a drink for spoiling your fun though,” Danny nodded at the barman who poured a couple of colourful drinks for them and handed Danny a bottle of Becks. The cocktails came in wide mouthed martini glasses that looked to Joel like they’d break in his hand as soon as he picked one up. Either that or he’d slop the drink everywhere, which given how little of it there was would be a shame.
Danny gestured vaguely in the direction of Joel’s still full pint glass. Joel shook his head.
They walked to the table, Danny leading, Joel a pace behind him staring at the tailored jacket stretched across his friend’s shoulders.
“Nice girls,” said Danny as they sat down. “I think they like you. Or at least the booze in them does”
Joel laughed, “I think you might be right.”
Danny looked back over his shoulder at the bar. Joel followed his eyes. The girls were facing away from them talking to two guys who’d just come in.
“Ah fuck it mate. Looks like you’ve missed the boat,” Danny said.
He turned back. “Now. Business.”
Joel took a drink as Danny started talking. He was used to this role, the attentive listener hearing one of Danny’s grand plans. Danny was a charmer, a salesman, a persuader. He could make anything sound good and as Joel took in his words he felt himself being pulled along by them. It was a relaxing feeling, familiar and warm. He sat there sipping his beer and letting the words roll over him. This was how it always happened and there was comfort in the repetition and the trust that he felt in the older man. Danny would sell a plan to him, tell him how that plan needed him to work and he’d go along with it. Turn up on the day and do his bit and walk away with a pocket full of cash.
on it later Joel wondered if he’d been listening closely enough, if this plan had really been as solid as the ones in the past. Maybe the beer in him and the trust of the moment stopped him really thinking about what Danny was saying. Or maybe it was the girls, whose shrill delighted laughs kept drawing his eyes and making him think of their long legs and their flirty eyes.
So maybe Joel hadn’t been paying quite enough attention. Or it could have been that Danny just used that charm of his to make it sound like it was all going to be fine. Either way as it turned out the plan wasn’t good at all. In fact it was fucking terrible.