Story for The Read Horse Issue 4: Lust, Fist-Fights and British Seaside Resorts.
Inside the Regis Rock Shop the walls were a brilliant white. Not a clinical, hospital-kind-of-white, not even an over-starched first day of term school shirt white, but a heavenly one. The kind that’s depicted in low budget movies made by directors that lack imagination: harmless and inoffensive but unoriginal, at best: a glimpse of a better man’s fantasy.
It worked well though, the whiteness contrasted the stripes of the assorted rock and tempted the eye with a sticky residue of colour, enticing trade through the door like a fly-strip. Day trippers fresh off the train: their pasty skin and crisp clothes came to purchase buckets and spades on the way to the beach. Day trippers homeward bound: their blotchy skin and moistened brows seeking refreshments and sugary souvenirs.
No one could tell if the pebble dash on the outside had been intentional – another contrast perhaps – or if it was the product of years of the sticky confectionary combining with the violent sea, spitting salt and sand and stone against its walls in a raw jealousy at its own bitterness, that could never hope to be so sweet.
Maureen pulled the shutters up and aligned the feet of rotating postcard rack into the worn grooves in the pavement. She re-entered the shop and awkwardly heaved the oversized ice cream cone outside to accompany the postcards. It used to be much easier, she recalled, back when it had wheels. Mr Slocomb – the store’s owner – had removed them due to the “sheer volume of stress and grievance caused to my person” when a bored teenage gang became fond of moving it around town.
She adjusted the straps on her striped apron. They fitted comfortably in the carved channels of her pleasingly plump but slightly sagging midriff. She tied her hair back, careful to hide the grey strands beneath richer tones. Checking herself in the window reflection she applied a gaudy lipstick to pursed lips. She then placed her shoes in the worn footholds behind the till and braced herself; ready to start the day.
Mr Slocomb stepped through the beaded curtain from the back room, round-cheeked and po-faced as usual. He took the four short steps to the front door and turned the sign to read “open” and smiled to himself; ready to start the day.
Maureen inhaled apprehensively; Mr Slocomb exhaled expansively.
“Look! Right there!” He gestured to a woman pushing a double-buggy along the road. “Two children! Whatever does she need two at once for?” This was to be the first catch of a very long day.
11a.m. and a second cup of tea had barely touched the sides of her boredom. Highlights of the morning included one cyclist on the pavement eliciting a “four wheels good, two wheels bad” response from Mr Slocomb and finding a dead bug stuck to a sugar dummy, and leaving it there.
Mr Slocomb’s current victim was proving to be a particularly fertile topic. “….a black suit jacket with sleeves rolled to the elbows? Wait! And, no! He’s wearing jeans, and worse, they’re tight-fitting ones.” She followed the line of his fervent gesticulating and saw a figure paddling, hands in pockets, holding rolled jeans just out of the water’s grasp.
“But why is a man like that, here, in these parts? To visit the poor unfortunates whose lot in life it is to live here? Well I’ll not have his pity. No doubt he thinks he’s here with other ideas, he truly believes he is drawn to the decaying nostalgia of crumbling Victoriana. He sits in Harry Ramsden’s, watching the seagulls hovering arhythmically on the breeze, pondering hisself deeply: ‘does the corrosive effect of the brine on once-packed music halls echo my own inner emptiness and transience?’
Maureen squinted at the figure more intently; he did seem a little out of place.
“He thinks he’s a simple man, partial to simple pleasures. Reckons that sitting on striped deckchairs, poking one hairy toe in the sea, watching happy children ride balding donkeys on the salty shingle can fill his sense of loss. If he can only master the satisfaction of tying knots on a handkerchief so perfectly you’d never know it wasn’t a hat bought in British Home Stores, then he’ll think he’s bluddy Buddha reaching Nirvana.”
Maureen turned from the window and went to top-up the jars of boiled sweets on the shelf as she often did during his long rambles. Standing on the little footstool she dropped them single-file off the scoop and enjoyed the oddly musical noise they made: xylophonic; like pebbles skimming on the sea before dropping to the depths, or if it was a particularly long speech; lemmings plummeting from a cliff, one by one.
“Yet another tourist with Sunburnt Gullshit Wanderlust on their mind no doubt”. The punctuated phrase interrupted her musical composition and she stepped down to count the float for the third time that morning.
“But often, these men are ne’erdowells; their touristic choices come from a darker place. Perhaps he enjoys the displays of domestic violence in the prom-side Punch and Judy shows or even baser yet, he harbours an addiction to bingo. Is he busy whittling away the wife’s savings on the flash flash clink of slot machines or indulging in teatime trysts with hard-up palm readers? Maybe little Johnny and Mary at home look up to the fridge at postcards from Daddy unable to remember if it was a moustache or a beard that bristled against them when he kissed them goodnight.”
Two-Four-Six-Eight-Ten. She counted the twenty pence pieces with separate fingers, scraping them on the counter, piling them in £1 towers then picking the towers and plopping them in their allotted compartments. She did this slowly and one by one so that each 20p chinked in succession like falling dominoes.
The cash register was ancient; all part of Mr Slocomb’s commercial ethic, borne at first out of a penny pinching tightness, then a stubborn refusal to modernise. Maureen had to admit the shop’s quaintness amidst the other neon seafront facades was probably the reason it remained open whilst the other businesses faded. Its quaintness was itself a tourist attraction. It was also probably the reason the city man in the skinny jeans was heading towards them now.
Mr Slocomb was completely oblivious to the fact, that the very figure of his tirade was merely metres away thumbing through the selection of faded postcards in the rack.
“I’m simply more perceptive than yous youths of today; I see the cut of his cloth, the indent of his figure on his shirt and notice the muscles: dormant but present. A man like that is a lusty sort, mark you me; when he’s not fleecing you with dodgy wares he’s siring children all up and down the coast.”
The bell tinkled and the stranger entered.
A whiff of cologne entered the shop; its musky tones overpowering the usually dominant aroma of syrupy sweetness. It had the effect of smelling salts: Maureen awoke immediately. It was as if she had caught her finger on the candy floss spindle many moons ago and was only now rousing from a centenary of slumber. Her senses were keen and she started to feel tingly. An adrenaline rush caused her pupils to dilate and the fine hairs on her arms prickled alert to wave hello to this handsome stranger who was indeed a lusty sort.
Entranced by this very literal breath of fresh air, she left Mr Slocomb to defend the till from hoodied ambush and followed the stranger around the shop on hand for assistance should he need it. Mints — should he buy glacial or imperial? Jacks — apple or black? Sherbert lemons, sugared almonds, chocolate limes, rhubarb, custard, cola? He was the ‘Pied Piper’ of the hour; whatever his fancy she would assist.
The stranger was acutely aware of being followed. He hated it when shop assistants tried to sell you things. He just wanted to look. He was only browsing but now he felt pressured and that took all the joy out of looking. Romantically he imagined himself a flâneur, scouring the earth for the last of its unexperienced pleasures; he was blotting paper absorbing the ink from the fine quill of the past. But for his romantic notion to function he needed to stroll the crowd invisibly. The figures from the past should hardly be interacting with him. He turned to make a swift exit but was penned in by the overly keen assistant whose gaudy lipstick had really begun to annoy him. He’d have to buy something after all. He grabbed at the nearest item. Great, he thought, looking at the prize his desperation had bagged him: novelty penis lollies.
“Excuse me” he said to the doe-eyed woman before him, “I’d, er, like to buy these”.
Penis lollies! Her heart fluttered, reading his choice as a sign. She brushed Mr Slocomb aside and quickly moved behind the till, ready to fulfill the stranger’s every desire.
He paid for his item and snagged his finger on hers when receiving his change. For him it was an moment of awkwardness, but for Maureen it was the moment her body ached more powerfully than ever before. She tried to make it last, leaving her finger lingering, so that he would notice that every particle in her was screaming “take me with you, please!” but he hastily snatched his hand back and left the shop. The bell on the door tinkled a nonchalant “good-day”. Relieved, he walked away quickly and sought the nearest bin to dump the lollies in. He really must be getting back to London. At least people left you alone in London.
Inside Maureen wanted to scream, but couldn’t. Instead the jars began to rattle with the sheer kinetic energy of years of pent-up frustration. The whole place vibrated as if God had just hit a tuning fork on the roof. Lids began flying off from their jars, glass containers started to smash to the floor, boiled sweets burst, and bullseyes glowed like fireflies. Fruits pipped, strawberries dripped, pears dropped and the butter scotched. Cola bottles popped their tops, white powder flowed out of fountains filling the air with a sherbet cordite haze until the room resembled night-time, November 5th, in the Wonka Factory. The fudge cooked in its box as if the box itself was a microwave. The Mister Whippy ice-cream machine made an ominous gloop-gloop noise that made everything even more warped and slow-motion. White mice ran around the floor, candy shrimps shoaled next to them, crocodiles snapping at the heels of both. Rainbow stripes hovered in the air and cosmic belts hovered even higher. Stringed necklaces and gummy teeth adorned themselves on tiny chewy skulls. Foam mushrooms toasted, eggs fried in-between, all causing teddy bears to lick their lips in the suffocating packets of their incarceration.
For the first time in his life Mr Slocomb faltered, his mouth agape and eyes agog, dumbstruck as he decided which modern calamity was responsible for causing such chaos in his beloved shop. Was it an earthquake? A terrorist attack? A British tsunami? Or could it be the final proof of global warming!? The inner turmoil was evident in the complete silence and stillness that had struck his body. His mind was clearly engaged in a virulent fist-fight as it decided which of the denigrate oxygen thieves of society were to blame. Was it immigrants, benefit cheats or hazardous dog owners?
A bicycle flew past on the pavement making the shutters rattle. “Bluuddy buggering CYCLISTS!” he roared and shook his fist decisively.
Maureen began to contemplate whether a noose made out of licorice laces could sustain her body weight for just long enough.