On any other day I might have cursed and said, ‘Typical,’ but when Pat and I turn up at the Fishermen’s and find it closed I’m relieved. It was a stupid idea anyway, borne of the madness of grief and I don’t want to get involved. With anyone. Unless they’re living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean or anywhere separated from here by a good few thousand miles.
‘What shall we do now?’ says Pat, putting her hood up as the rain started again.
‘Let’s just forget it. Do you want to go for a drink?’ Pat looks disappointed, saying she’d brought along her photo album and everything. She was upset when I told her about Zorba, but not as knocked out by the coincidence of it all like I am.
‘Things happen in threes’, she said, sagely. When I said that Zorba made four all she said was, ‘But what if other people turn up?’
I can’t actually see that happening, but just to please her I say, ‘OK, I’ll ring her. I can’t get a signal here. Wait and I’ll go up the road.’
I wonder whether just to pretend to call, would I get away with it? I can feel Pat’s eyes on me as I walk away. She’s a canny one that Pat. Three yards on and she calls me back.
‘Mike, there’s a light on – I think she’s coming to open up.’ Damn. I turn back, pretending to look pleased.
‘Hi Kath, are you sure this is OK?’ Pat follows me in. ‘This is Pat.’
Kathy is all red-eyed and blotchy. I put down my stupid folder of silly hand-outs and just stand there like an idiot. She turns to Pat. ‘Did you hear about my dog?
‘Yes love, I’m so sorry. I know how you feel.’
‘Do you? Really? Did your dog bite a fucking DFL’s kid did he? … Oh, I’m sorry love, what did you say your name was? Pat. Pat, I’m sorry. I’m just a bit … the bloody kid grabbed his tail you know? Zorb just flew round and nearly bit his fucking hand off. I didn’t even see it, one minute he was out walking with Kip, next minute the dog handlers were here and then Zorb really did lose it, so did I, and Kip, and the bloody woman was screaming blue murder and ambulance came and took the kid up to the hospital and they took Zorb away. Kip went with them… She starts sobbing again.
‘Have you got anything to drink?’ Is all I can think of to say.
‘Yeah – over there,’ she points to the far end of the counter, ‘Underneath.’ I look over at Pat to see if she is OK or shocked or offended or anything. But she is calm and is helping Kathy into a chair, patting her shoulder and saying ‘There, there,’ and words to that effect.
I get three glasses and pour out three large Metaxas. Kath downs hers, lays her head on her arms on the table and her shoulders start to shake with sobs. Just then there’s a thundering down the stairs and Kippers appears in tracksuit bottoms falling off his hips and a denim shirt hanging undone. Jesus, he is unbelievably sexy. I make a concerted effort not to look at him.
‘What the fuck are you two doing here. Get lost!’
‘No you get lost!’ Kath is on her feet again. ‘Go on! Piss off! You usually do you anyway! You didn’t fucking care about him anyway! He was mine! I fed him, I looked after him, all you ever did was spoil him, then disappear off somewhere!’ I have to say that I felt the drama was for our benefit, in part at least. And very impressive it was too.
Pat and I exchange glances. Kip disappears back up the stairs.
‘I think maybe we should go, Kath…’
‘NO! You’re staying! Both of you, here, sit down!’ She sweeps the sauce bottle and the vinegar in its little glass decanter and the salt and dusty pepper up to the wall with some force and motions for us to sit. We lower ourselves obediently into our chairs. She then goes and gets an ashtray and the bottle of brandy and comes back. Now Kippers clumps back down the stairs with his boots and jacket on and he storms past us and slams the door shut.
‘And don’t fucking bother coming back!’ Kath shouts after him, then bursts into tears again as the tinkling of the bell on the rattling door falls silent. Only to tinkle again, open, and a head peers round.
‘Have I come to the right place?’ says Iris.
I suppose it was inevitable that it’s Kath’s evening, even though we do get to look at Pat’s photos of Eric in various stages of development. I want her to slow down so that I can see the ones of her and her late husband, but she skims over them and gets back to Eric a.s.a.p. I get the feeling that Iris disapproves of Kath, but then that seems to be the vibe she gives out. Pat listens to Kath, sipping her Metaxas politely, nodding, and saying ‘Aw!’ and ‘Oh God!’ and ‘It’s so awful, poor you!’ but with an abiding faraway look in her eyes as she speaks and nods, doing what years of training in talking to the back of someone’s head does, cutting in at the right moments like a member of the orchestra who knows the score backwards.
I get the feeling that despite what I took to be her disapproval, Iris is getting what I got from the ‘I miss my dog’ Google – i.e., that ‘at least my dog lived out his (sort of) natural life and THAT didn’t happen’ thing. See, it could have been worse. See, I am lucky. And what an absolute cow I am for comforting myself thus. She doesn’t say much about herself or Napoleon. Not that she has much chance.
‘I loved that bastard dog you know? It’s mad isn’t it – only yesterday there he was as usual! Just sitting there watching me, like when I chuck stuff out on the roof for Gully. He was a bully, but it wasn’t his fault. He was a present from Kip…’ She takes another gulp of brandy. ‘You know his name is really Cyprus, don’t you? His family and mine, we go right back… Used to play together as kids. Up the cliffs … the caves. He’d scare me shitless telling me stories of the ghosts of pirates and smugglers and climbing up to get eggs from the gulls” nests to take home to my mum. We stay up there for hours you know? And then he’d… well …’ Iris Pat and I exchange glances. We could be on the verge of receiving a little too much information. She sloshes more brandy into her glass. ‘Hours we’d be up there and he’d make up stories and poems and stuff… Can’t climb up there now. Wire everywhere. To stop rocks falling onto the day trippers!’ This makes her laugh. We all join in politely. ‘Yeah, I remember little Zorb, so tiny, he was too young, you know? It’s all changed around here now. Mum used to feed all the men straight off the boats. Now it’s the DFLs, Sunday papers under their arms asking for fancy coffees and do you have Earl Grey?’ she says, in a posh voice. Iris and Pat nod knowingly. I just sit there thinking Bar Italia versus Nescaff with milk and three large ones. It’s called progress, isn’t it?
‘Oh, by the way, I brought some stuff you might find interesting.’ I said, embarrassed, like I was getting paid for some sort of workshop without being in the tiniest bit qualified, and gave everyone a couple of sheets with the Byron poem and the stuff about Thibault the lobster and some stuff from the pet grief book and then Pat said she was getting tired.
‘Let’s have a toast,’ Kath tipped the last of the brandy into the four glasses. I was being good because I’d told Pat I’d give her a lift home if she came, but one more sip wouldn’t do any harm.
‘To Zorba, Harry… What was your dog called again, love?’
‘Eric,’ said Pat, annoyed.
‘In no particular order,’ Kath was swaying now, ‘…as they say on the X factor … To Zorba, Harry, Eric and Napoleon, who did more for us than any bastard man ever did.’ Iris’s brows were knitted together but Pat seemed happy enough with that. ‘Zorba, Harry, Eric and Napoleon!’ We raised our glasses and Pat, really getting into the spirit raised hers a second time, ‘And to Dead Pets Society!’
‘Dead Pets Society!’
Iris and Pat chat away in the back seat about the recent enlargement of the supermarket. Fascinating. I want to know how long they’ve lived here and how they ever came to be here, all that sort of stuff but I don’t want to interrupt their flow. I hear them arranging to go for a walk together as they were both really missing their walks. Thanks for asking me guys! Nice. Soon we’re at Iris’s flat.
‘Thank you, dear,’ she said, grasping my hand through the car window with her peculiarly firm grip, ‘I wasn’t going to come, but I’m so glad I did.’
‘That’s great Iris, thank you!’ I say, quite surprised. Kath’s behaviour had been rather strong, to say the least. I drop Pat at her place and feel quite overwhelmed with relief. So much so that I head back down to Rock Road like a boy racer, after all, my car is pathetic enough. I do this sometimes, or I have done since Harry died. Turn up the music, put my foot down, do some damage to my exhaust on the speed humps, screech into the empty car park, yank the handbrake for all its worth and spin into a handbrake turn to die for, feeling my fingers and toes buzz with the adrenalin hit as I jolt to a halt. Yee-hah!
Oh dear. Looks like I’ve annoyed someone. A shadowy figure looms up from the beach, I can’t hear him because of my music, but he’s gesticulating like he’s shouting. Time to go-o… Oh fuck – it’s bloody Kippers! He sprints over, and before I can get back in gear, he slams down on the bonnet and yanks my door open.
‘What the fuck do you lot think you’re doing! This isn’t a fucking…’ Then he sees my face, is visibly shocked, shakes his head and yells, ‘YOU AGAIN?! Jesus! What is it with you? I try to say something but before I can think of anything he says, ‘Why don’t you just piss off back to London and leave us alone! Just fuck off, go on!’ With that, he actually kicks the side of my car and starts to storm off. Enough already! I jump out of the car, run after him and grab his sleeve. He spins round to face me.
‘Look, mate, I don’t know what your problem is, I don’t know you, and you know nothing about me. OK? So you fuck off, all right?!’ Next thing he shakes me off and sprints back to my car, gets in the driver’s seat and turns the key and starts revving the car like a lunatic. I might not love my car, but I certainly can’t afford for it to blow a gasket or whatever it might do, so I charge round the other side and get in the passenger seat and try to I don’t know what, scream at him to stop, but the next thing I know we’re doing some sort of mad Top Gear circuit round the car park, he’s laughing his head off.
‘Looking for thrills are you!’ he hollers. I yell at him to stop. So he stops. So suddenly that I’m thrown forward, then back again as off he goes, stop, start, back, front, round, round, stop, back, front, off again and the only way I can describe the feeling is how a parasite might feel, clinging on to a car sized speed-balling bee still determined to do its where’s-the-pollen dance. Christ. I’m going to die any minute now. He’s right, I interfered, I poked my nose in where it wasn’t wanted and now I am to die for my folly. HARRY! HELP ME! MUMMY’S IN TROUBLE! He’s still laughing his head off, but me going quiet does seem to register, and he stops.
‘GET OUT OF MY CAR YOU FUCKING CRAZY BASTARD!’ I scream at the top of my voice, but just in case he doesn’t, I’ve already decided that he’s welcome to the damn thing and I get out. My legs are like jelly and I steady myself against the nearest bin and bend over because there’s a strong possibility that I’m going to puke. Thankfully, I don’t. He’s got the nerve to come over and ask if I’m OK.
‘Oh yeah, I’m fine, great, never better. Next time I feel like going to Alton Towers I’ll just call you instead!’ I’ve no idea where that came from, but all I can say is that sometimes my dear old muse obliges right on cue.
‘What?’ he says. Such is a writer’s life. Pearls, swine an’ all that. And then I see that he is wiping tears from his eyes. Oh for pity’s sake! I’m starting to get just a little bit weary of everyone’s feminine side. Mine especially, as I now get the sad female urge to comfort him. Which I resist.
‘I need a fucking drink,’ is all I say.
Ever the gentleman, he gets back in the car and lines it up in a parking place, then, knock me down with a feather, goes over to the pay and display, gets a ticket, comes back and tells me I’ve got till 10in the morning.
‘I’ve got resident’s parking you know … I only have to move it…’ He locks the car and chucks me the keys, taking the piss with a mock posh, ‘I’ve got resident’s parking you know!’ followed by a vaguely menacing but, it has to be said, compelling, ‘But you’re coming with me now, aren’t ya darling?’
‘No I’m not!’ I say, trotting along behind him.
I breathe in the oily garage smell of the low tarry shed. Black with bitumen, hung with nets and rope, an engine commandeers the middle attached to winch attached to a rope that stretches right down to his boat, pulled up on the shingle. There’s a stove in the corner and half a bicycle, fishing gear and God knows what else. He pours a huge amount of whiskey into a filthy looking mug. I neck it in one, and he gives me more. Why the hell is he being nice to me now? I fumble in my pocket for my tobacco and make a cigarette.
‘Got a light?’ He rummages in a box, then gives me a light from the huge flame of an old Zippo, illuminating his swarthy pirate-like face and for a minute I’m back at the London Dungeon, only now with some real live fear.
‘Want one?’ I ask. He shakes his head. ‘Bad for you.’
‘Really? I had no idea.’
He looks at me sideways with what I think might be a tiny smile-like expression and puts the kettle on.
‘So you’re a writer are you?’ He says, spooning something into a teapot. I shrug my shoulders petulantly. He puts what seems to be an envelope of loose tea back into some sort of silken purse. This surprises me. The whisky seems to have been just for me. I immediately decide that he must infuse weed thus. He sees me looking.
‘It’s a shepherd’s tea, from Greece, good for the immune system.’
‘Wow.’ Which I also say when I’m stuck. It stands for Words Out (the) Window. I just sit there for a while waiting for my heart rate to fall, while my hastily rolled fag goes out. He chucks me the Zippo. ‘Sorry if I scared you,’ he says.
‘Make a habit of that sort of thing do you?’ I ask.
‘No. But today… Zorba…’ he takes a very deep breath.
‘I’m really sorry about your dog.’
He nods. ‘Do you?’
‘Do I what?’
‘Make a habit of that sort of thing?’
‘No. Well, sometimes, just lately…’
‘Bit of a petrol head are you?’
‘God no! I just … oh, I don’t know. Look, I’m not like that.’
‘Like some sort of mindless Herbert, I suppose.’
He laughs. ‘What are you like then?’
I look at him. ‘I don’t know.’
‘How old are you?’
‘I’m 43. What is this, some sort of interrogation? How old are you?’
‘Old enough to know what I’m like.’
‘Well, you tell me then. What are you like?’
‘No. It’s not for you to know. It’s for me to know.’
‘So why the hell did you ask me what I was like?’
‘What I wanted to know was if you knew what you were like?’
‘Well, this is a good game, isn’t it? Shall we change the subject?’
‘OK.’ He strained his tea into a mug through a large sieve.
‘So what do you do? I look around again. I guess you’re a fisherman, but…’
‘D’you wanna hear a poem?’ He says, interrupting me.
No fucking way José! is what I want to say, but what I do say is, ‘OK.’ He opens a drawer and takes out a folder, rifles through its contents and pulls out a couple of sheets of lined A4. ‘It’s called Old Rock Road,’ he says. Whatever is what I’m inclined to quip, but I don’t. He begins:
My name is Cyprus Roper
They call me the ancient Greek
After Dad who turned up here one day
When his boat had sprung a leak
As tanned as an oak-smoked herring
And handsome as they come
She put ’im up for a couple of nights
She was like that, my old mum
So that’s why she called me Cyprus
To remind her of my dad
Cos that’s where she said he came from
He wasn’t just some local lad
But at school they called me Kippers
Thought that was what it said
When they asked me who me Dad was
I told them he was dead
They said that they smelled fish on me
Cos I was a fisherman’s kid
But I never even met my dad
And I never met no one who did
But I tasted the sea in my nose and my mouth
In the snot and the tears as they fell
And I swore that one day I’d find him
Sit him down and make him tell
Why he came here in the first place
Sailing in right out of the blue
Ma said he told tales of far and of wide
There weren’t nothing that he never knew
That one day he even met Neptune
That salty old God of the Sea
That Zeus had had him to dinner
…Aphrodite had had him for tea
So I’m sitting here on the beach one day
With bum fluff all over me face
I don’t want to leave poor mum on her own
But I’m starting to feel out of place
Like a bird feels the need to fly southwards
To answer some age-old request
I’m off I’m going I’m leaving I said
I’m getting too big for my nest
He stopped, shuffled his papers and looked over at me, with an inscrutable expression on his face.
‘Go on – that’s brilliant!’
‘Yeah, really. Is that it?’
‘Nah, but I can’t find the rest of it…’ He rummages in the drawer again. I peer over and see that it’s full of loose leaves covered in handwritten text.
He says to give him a minute and he might find the rest. I make another cigarette and sit there, trying to memorise all the tools and ropes and oil cans and crates and floats and bits of net and God know what, wondering how I can get this place into the book. It’s just so damn authentic… As a DFL the closest Claire would come to this is in the Fishermen’s Museum. Unless Alan… No. It just isn’t necessary to try to weave every interesting or unlikely thing or person into your damn book. I tried that with Neil the electrician but I decided that at the end of the day Claire just isn’t as likely to end up hanging out with a workman as me. She’s just not like me in that way. But I was knocked out when he told me that he’d just finished an Open University degree in astrophysics. I asked him if he could explain quantum theory and he tried his best. Told me this little rhyme that helped his kids;
Why won’t you just behave? said the particle to the wave
Because I’m happy simply flowing to wherever it is I’m going
Must you always be making a point? Or was it Tell me, what exactly is your point?
Can’t remember now. Something like that.
© Amanda Nicol 2015