Candyfloss and Pickles – Chapter One: Flat
Dreariness dominated another winter’s Tuesday in Fryeston-on-Sea, just as it had dominated previous winter’s Tuesdays and every other winter’s day from Wednesday to Monday.
The sun, diffused by unending sagging bags of cloud, could spark no reflection from the muffling sea.
Fun-filled Fryeston was closed for the season.
All frolics had been put away, leaving bare Victorian buildings, the becalmed crazy golf course, chairs stacked high on café tables and seagulls, an all-year nuisance, unlike holiday-makers.
“Never known a nuisance without a bob or two in it,” muttered Chester Chumpley, Fryeston entrepreneur and owner of the seagull-processing plant on the hill-top industrial estate, tucked up out of sight of summer promenaders.
“Except some of us wouldn’t stoop so low as to shovel it out of the gutter, eh?” chipped in Vernon Calthorpe, only as refined as petrol is from crude oil and similarly trailing dangerous fumes.
“Just look at that bloody sky,” continued Chester, apparently untouched by the jibe.
“I wouldn’t have to if I could smoke this cigar inside,” moaned his companion.
“That’s health policy for you. Not only do we breathe fresh air out here, but we also get to enjoy nature’s beauty full on as we inhale our tobacco.”
“I do: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, into pies, pasties, pastry and upmarket party food,” beamed the cash-rich caterer.
“You’re insufferable, Chumpley.” And Vernon flicked his half-smoked cigar into the gutter. “I come out of a lunchtime for a bite to eat, a drink or two and some decent conversation and all I get is a microwaved portion delivered by chiller van, beer piped with cleaning fluid into a smeary glass, no smoking in the bar and crap conversation from my companions. I might as well go back to the office and do an afternoon’s work.”
And he lurched off the step down on to the pavement.
“It’ll be the first time in 30 years.”
Whether Calthorpe had not heard or chose not to hear Chumpley’s parting remark, he stormed off gloomily into the dreariness.
“Miserable git,” added Chumpley. “Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of misery. Folk can’t be happy all the time or it’ll tip them right off the scale and back into the doldrums. Bet they don’t teach that at business school.”
“Blabbering to yourself again, Chumpley?” It was the mayor.
“I was just thinking that business schools probably don’t . . . “
“What are you on about? All this fancy business talk is beyond Fryeston-on-Sea, thank you very much. Now, I’ve got to get to an official function: the opening of the new crematorium. Twice as efficient as the old one and heats hot water for the swimming pool into the bargain. I’m taking the wife along to test it.”
“Heartless old . . .” Chumpley stalled as his second companion hurtled off the step as fast as his first, only to be swallowed up by the funereal acreage of the mayoral limousine, which swept up silently from round a corner, no doubt dominated by the other-worldly presence of the lady mayoress, likened to a tombstone by the town’s dwindling electorate, before sweeping back into the gloom.
“You’re turning into a miserable old sod yourself, Chumpley,” said Chumpley to no one else but Chumpley. “Where’s your cheer?”
And once more he turned his gaze seawards, taking in the grim seaside view that sells Florida so well to the unimaginative.
“I love this place and I love this time of year,” he bellowed.
And to crown his joy a seagull deposited on the pavement before him.
“You’d have never made the Dambusters with an aim like that!”
“Mr Chumpley, please keep the noise down if you must utter drivel to yourself. I have the reputation of my establishment to consider. Even though most of my guests are elderly, one or two still have keen hearing.”
Chumpley mumbled an apology to the diminutive hotelier who had appeared behind him, a shrivelled incarnation of an ampler, more animated lady of previous decades, now shrinking in unison with the clientele of her establishment.
“Of course, Mrs Peabody, of course.”
Chumpley turned to follow the tiny woman back within the hidden reaches of the gloomy hotel.
He stumbled as his eyes failed to adjust to the dim interior of the town’s largest hotel, whose original features frequently sought to confirm their provenance by crumbling into dust or delivering glancing blows to passers-by without or guests within when time toppled them from their fixings.
The long-lingering impression of carpet underfoot and chair cover under buttock suggested the texture of worn corduroy ingrained with dust, ash and lard, while the eye recoiled at the macabre colour scheme co-ordinating dried blood, burnt toast and leaf mulch.
Brush and duster seemed alien implements to this establishment where spit and a rub of an old rag either wiped away the remains of any decorative finish or added a smear to brighten up the atmosphere, while layers of dust lay untouched out of reverence for the spirits of residents no longer present.
Lunch was over and the few guests, a mix of the unseasonal with the long-term, were bearing their digestive burdens to their rooms to recover from the knife and fork ordeal that would weigh heavily on them until afternoon tea could batten it down further.
The hotel restaurant was chosen by the familiar for its reputation as a meeting-place rather than its hardy fare; food was the price to pay for attending any function in its seemingly ancient hall, especially as none of the town’s doctors would yield an appointment to a victim of its excruciating tortures.
But while the building refused to cede its hallowed spot to vulturous property developers circling in their silver saloons, a dedicated band of guests and diners, visitors and locals worshipped at this seafront shrine, keeping the beer taps trickling and the sherry corks popping sedately.
Chumpley shoved open the door to the restaurant, in a mind to address his remnant fellow diners, to confront a scattering of battlefield platters, draped with the corpses of main courses, abandoned on the table.
“The buggers have scarpered,” he snorted.
The whisper, slight and hesitant, hung in the air briefly like a child’s blown bubble before collapsing under the weight of its own existence. The waiter who had blown this bubble of speech stood, just as slight and hesitant, in the shadow of a grandmother clock tottering Pisa-like next to the doorway.
“Although you’re presently unencumbered with the burden of charisma, let’s hope that one day something fills your vacant expression sufficiently to inspire a lone remark capable of being considered faintly interesting,” was the response expected by this anonymous temporary waiter supplied by the job centre.
Instead, the poorly trained, overworked lad was surprised by Chumpley’s polite “thank you”, a new experience which seemed to paralyse him as the Fryeston entrepreneur turned swiftly to show himself out.
Outside, the sea seemed unsure of its direction, barely lapping at the beach beyond the promenade. Should it come in or go out? It really didn’t have the energy or the inclination for either, seeming resigned to lie flat and still.
A girl sat on a rock, looking out into the dull distance, also without energy or inclination for movement. No breeze lifted her hair, no glint of sun on distant ripples lifted her gaze, no swish of curling wave collapsing upon curling wave, no crackle of tide sucked back through shingle, no fizzle of foam popping on the sand: nothing could lift her spirits.
She didn’t see the view before her and didn’t see Chumpley marching out of the hotel behind her. She was lost in the closed season on a winter’s Tuesday, a true daughter of Fryeston-on Sea.
Read Chapter Two: Andante.
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© Robert Zarywacz 2008