Tom put down a green handbag full of radio valves and other electrical components he’d been carrying for Alan, and sat on it.
Alan noted his companion’s griminess and wondered vaguely if he looked as bad. Mind you, it had been a very productive morning. A grubby face felt like a small price to pay. “So, when?”
Tom sniffed and wiped his nose across his raincoat sleeve. “July, probably.”
“Mum says he’ll qualify for probation soon, as long as he keeps out of trouble. That’s half his six-year sentence knocked off.”
“That’ll be nice.”
“Mmm. I’m not so sure.” Tom hurled a lump of concrete at a row of wine bottles he’d set up on top of an old desk.
“Don’t get me wrong. I love my dad and all that, and I know he’s no saint, but he’s definitely not a blackmailer. He took some photos and then got caught with them, but that was all. Sure, he’s done things he shouldn’t have but he didn’t deserve to go inside, not this time. He got fitted up by the police, plain and simple. They said the town
deserved a little break from Len Burns and his activities. Dad says his boss planned the whole thing, but he got off scot-free. He’s a coward and did it to save his own skin because he panicked after that council bloke killed himself. Dad says he’s an informer, a grass. He knew Dad wouldn’t say anything. Dad says when he gets out there’ll be a payoff, enough for us to make a fresh start in London. He’s going straight this time; he’s promised Mum.”
Jessica and Katie leaned on the rail at the end of Medgate pier, the only ones, it seemed, brave enough to be enjoying the chilly spring day. The blustery April wind attacked the girls’ hair with random dabs of North Sea breeze. Many people would have found this annoying but the girls were quite accustomed – just another facet of life in an English seaside town.
“So, when?” Katie watched as Jessica unwrapped her chips, pulled out a really long one, and let it dangle in the cooling wind.
“August, probably.” Jessica bit the chip in half and threw the rest off the pier. A gull deftly caught it and soared up and away with its prize, a feathered ghost tossed over their heads by the stiff breeze.
“Mum says it’s so I can get started at a new school in September. And we can have a holiday first.”
“That’ll be nice.”
“Mmm. I’m not so sure.”
Katie eyed the chips hungrily but knew better than to ask, because if asked Jess always said no. “My mum gave them to me,” she would say. Once she had eaten her fill then Katie had a chance. “I suppose in a way we are a bit like sisters, aren’t we?” Jess had once remarked, before handing over nearly half a bag. “Here, take them,” she’d said. “I’m so full up today.”
Jess was the tall one, slim enough to look malnourished despite the steady diet of chips, and mini-skirted as usual. Today she wore a co-ordinated red duffel coat and bobble hat and a pair of expensive-looking, long brown leather boots. The boots matched the colour of her hair, which her mother had neatly plaited into a long, single French braid. Jess actually preferred it in a simple ponytail, but her mum enjoyed fussing over her and Jess never had the heart to say no. With her olive, Mediterranean skin that reflected her dad’s Italian origin, she was predestined to look tanned, whatever the season. She had a tendency to hold her chin high which, combined with a long neck and an aquiline profile, could sometimes give the impression of haughtiness; but that was not Jess at all. She had a model’s face, according to Katie’s gran, although she said it in a way that managed to make it sound like an affliction.
Katie was the small one: petite but more healthily proportioned than her companion. A bob of dark red curls framed her round, innocent face, with its small nose and pink cheeks, home to a million freckles. Intelligent, pale grey eyes and curving red lips tended to combine forces to make her appear to be always on the brink of a smile, as if she had noticed something amusing that others had missed. Eight months younger than Jess and having yet to begin showing any obvious signs of development, she could easily have passed for a ten-year-old.
“So it’s definite,” Katie sighed.
“Looks like it.”
“Yep, ‘fraid so. I will miss this place, you know. Will you come and visit?”
“Sure. Where is it you’re going?”
“Dunno exactly. Somewhere up north, is all I know. Mum’s never even seen the place, only in the photos Eric’s shown her, and to be honest it looks pretty horrible. Factories, chimneys, and long rows of houses all stuck together. Lots of jobs, though.”
Rather you than me, Katie thought, still eyeballing the chips.
Tom swung the iron bar and brought it down hard on a dining room chair. The wood splintered and, after another blow, the entire back flew off.
“Nice one,” Alan commented appreciatively as he hurled a Kilner jar at a pile of bricks. It shattered pleasingly, sending glass shards flying in all directions. The town rubbish dump really did make the perfect playground. Occasionally, Alan wondered why they didn’t see other children there, but always the boys had the whole place to themselves. Those other kids didn’t know what they were missing.
Alan checked his watch. “I’m going to have to go shortly,” he sighed. “My sister’s expecting me…”
“To do her homework?” Tom suggested.
Alan pulled a face. “No, not this time. It’s the holidays, remember? Something worse, far, far worse. She’s lined me up to babysit Geraldine’s younger brother and sister while they go up town.” Geraldine was best friends and co-mischief-maker with Jade, Alan’s fifteen-year-old sister. “I hate those kids. They’re always whining…”
“They just won’t follow the rules,” Tom added, only slightly sarcastically.
“Quite.” The sarcasm seemed to be lost on Alan, who had quite a thing about rules. According to Alan, once a rule had come into existence it should not, in fact must not, be broken unless another rule trumped it.
As it happened, Alan was the author of many rules. He had been making them up for years, and they all had numbers. He started numbering them some while after he began the rule making – they helped him to remember them. Many of the earlier ones, those below about 150, concerned situations that no longer applied (for instance, Rule 31, which stipulated which side of bed to get out of on any particular day of the week, had been made obsolete after he moved his bed against the wall).
Rules made the world go round; they divided order from anarchy, separated civilisation from chaos. They made the planet a slightly less worrisome place.
“Mum says she’ll easily get work and then we’ll be OK.”
“But she’s got a job now,” Katie observed, watching Jess closely for signs of flagging chip consumption. “The Jolly Fryer is a job. Good perks, too,” she added, still eyeing the disappearing snack.
“Mum says the pay’s pretty bad, plus you always pong of fried fish. Sometimes our whole flat stinks of it. Besides, who wants to eat chips every day?”
I wouldn’t mind at all, Katie thought. Apart from her school dinner, she never ate a regular hot meal. Katie lived with her gran, whose idea of a meal didn’t extend much beyond sliced white bread and jam and digestive biscuits, washed down with numerous pots of tea or tots of sherry.
Gran took in lodgers, whom she allowed to cook their meals in a kitchen extension out the back. ‘Uncle’ Phil had lived in the house for six years, which was by some margin the longest anybody had managed to put up with Gran’s arbitrary rules and general sourness. At the moment, there were three other lodgers, all men, who had only been around for a year or two. One worked with Phil on his fishing boat and the other two were drivers. All four were often away, which helped to explain how they managed to tolerate Gran.
At last, Jess had filled herself up. “Here, want to finish them?”
Katie nodded vigorously and received the wrapper with great care. “I’m famished,” she said through a mouth bulging with chips, though it came out sounding like, “I’m Spanish.”
The girls strolled back down the pier, Katie intent on hoovering up every last chip, even the small, rubbery green ones that usually went to the gulls, while Jess walked in a dream. They passed the edge of the dodgem track, where two lads lounged by the ticket kiosk. One boy gave a wolf whistle that Katie knew for certain was not intended for her. She recognised the other boy from school and poked her tongue out at him, which made him grin and wave. “Those are great freckles!” he yelled.
Jess had already become aware of the attention she had started to receive from boys, and men, and discovered that she quite liked it. It made her feel more grown up, a bit less like a child.
So often, when round at Katie’s, she’d listened to her gran’s banter with the residents – always men – the flirting and the innuendo, the knowing nudges and winks of adult play that made her feel uneasy and ignorant, especially when they tried to include her in their games. She did not understand it yet, what they said and what they found funny, the loud laughter at what seemed to be nothing, but one day she would find out.
A man appeared next to the boys. His dark, ill-fitting business suit looked like it might have been borrowed from his big brother. A cigar stub dangled from his narrow face. His eyes wandered over them. Then he called across, “Wanna free ride?”
Katie found this unsought attention from a man who looked to be not far off middle age rather unsettling. She pulled a face and focused her attention on the nearly empty chip paper, but before she could turn down the invitation, Jess said, “Oh, come on, shall we? It’ll be a laugh,” and she pulled on Katie’s arm. “Only if the boys come with us,” she shouted over.
Maybe because their boss was standing beside them, or maybe just for the chance to get cosy beside the girls, the two lads decided they’d play along. After a short tussle over who would accompany Jess, they waited until the girls had settled themselves in their seats and then set off, steering the dodgems expertly between the stationary cars. From time to time, they turned sharply to contrive a near miss that caused Jess to scream and whack the boy on the arm. Katie, on the other hand, slid ever lower in her seat, clutching her chip paper ever tighter, and did her best to ignore the boy when he shot her an amused grin before jabbing her with his elbow.
After a few minutes, the ride ended. The man came across and helped Jess stand, while Katie was left to climb out by herself.
“Thanks, mister,” Jess said. “That was a good laugh. Wasn’t it?” she said, turning to her companion. Katie lowered her eyes and nodded, and thought it best to keep her feelings to herself. This man gave her the creeps.
“Any time, ladies,” his squeaky, nasal voice a perfect match with his thin, sallow face. With a grin best described as a leer, he reached into an inside pocket and retrieved a business card, which he held out between bony fingers. “You know, you remind me a bit of Hayley Mills, but more continental, if you know what I mean. Ever thought about modelling?”
“I’m still at school,” Jess replied.
“Well, yeh, I could of guessed that. But don’t let that hold you back. I’ve got contacts who could get you started. Up in London. They’d be very happy to do you a portfolio; you know, photos showing you off. Think about it. It can be good money. You know, getting dressed up and that, and posing for snaps that might end up in the Littlewoods catalogue. That kind of thing.”
Jess took the card but said nothing and allowed Katie to pull her away. When they’d reached the far side of the dodgem track he shouted over, “I’ll arrange a meet if you like. Give me a bell.”
As they made their way to the pier entrance neither girl spoke about what had just happened at the dodgem track, even though Katie had watched Jess carefully slipping the man’s card into her shoulder bag. She wouldn’t forget, though, and made a mental note to quiz Jess about it.
The Saturday after Good Friday beheld the first invasion of London day-trippers, braving the chilly spring weather to throng the promenade and stake out small, windbreak kingdoms against the sea wall. Determinedly jolly family groups, dressed for a day fifteen degrees warmer, sucked on ice-lollies and pert ice cream cornets in no danger of dripping. After a long, boring winter, Medgate was at last coming back to life.
By the lifeboat station, the girls paused to watch the Punch and Judy man entertaining a bigger than usual crowd down on the beach. The red and white canvas of the narrow tent-theatre, anchored to the sand with large cobbles, flapped in the stiff breeze. The large audience seemed to have injected the puppeteer’s routine with higher than normal levels of sadism and misogyny, the squeals from Judy sharp and pain-soaked, the repeated blows to the baby’s head from Punch’s cosh generating far more laughter than it deserved.
Katie finished the chips and binned the paper. She felt better now, and linked arms with her friend as they continued their stroll along the sea front. “Where shall we go next?” she said, and then pointed ahead. “Cancel that. Look who’s coming!”
Carrying the spoils of a morning’s foraging, the two boys quit the town rubbish dump. Alan carried a mint green handbag he’d found and then filled with radio valves, mains transformers and other assorted radio components he’d unscrewed from various abandoned radio sets and TVs. They were all useless, admittedly, but he just liked them. There was something very pleasing about their perfect geometry, and they were mysterious. How did they work? What exactly did they do inside a radio set?
Tom had found a bobbin of black wool that he would offer to his mum, and a blonde nylon wig that he wouldn’t.
Tom let Alan decide their route through town, back to the Reed Park estate where they both lived. Tom’s house was the top floor of a council maisonette, while Alan lived in a sprawling pre-war detached corner house that his father had inherited when Alan’s grandparents emigrated to Australia.
Their usual route took them along the Esplanade; it wasn’t the quickest way home but it meant they could dodge Alexander House, a large block of flats by common consent even rougher than Reed Park.
“Look, there’s Jess and Katie,” Tom said as they crossed the road by the lifeboat station. “Hi, girls!” he yelled and waved the wig above his head like a semaphore flag.
The girls waved back and walked over to join them. “And what have you two been up to this morning?” Katie said, looking at Alan’s handbag and then with faint amusement glancing up to try to read his face.
Alan’s eyes acknowledged her interest but his face betrayed no sign that he was aware of how daft he looked. Perhaps he just didn’t care.
Tom reached into a pocket and held out a packet of Refreshers. Katie helped herself without hesitation but, having clocked the extreme grubbiness of Tom’s hands, Jess rolled her eyes while making faint gagging noises. “Think I’ll pass,” she said, with a dispassion the others had grown used to.
“And what have you got there?” Katie said, and snatched the wig out of Tom’s hand. Anticipating Tom’s reflex intervention, she tossed it over the boys’ heads. Jess caught it but, as if the wig had just burst into flames, immediately threw it back to Katie.
“Hey!” Tom protested, and made a half-hearted attempt to win it back, but Katie was far too nimble and danced behind him, a gorilla chasing an elf.
Tom quickly gave up and let Katie examine her prize. She bashed it a few times on the railing to dislodge some patches of dried mud and then placed it over her ginger curls, jiggling it around until secure and roughly straight. She gave the others a twirl. “There, what do you think?”
The boys were impressed. “Wow. It makes you look a lot older, wearing that,” Alan remarked thoughtfully.
“She looks like Marianne Faithful,” Tom added.
“What do you think, Jess?” Katie said, evidently quite pleased to be for once the subject of the boys’ attention.
“I’d say more like Dusty Springfield, especially if you pile it up like this.” Jess took the nylon tresses, twisted them into a tight ball, and then held them on top of Katie’s head. “All you need now is four ton of eye shadow and a microphone.” She reached into her shoulder bag and retrieved a small mirror. “Here, have a look.”
“I dare you to walk through town wearing it,” Alan teased. “I’ll bet nobody’d recognise you.”
Katie considered the idea, tossing her nylon locks this way and that as she minced around like a Hollywood starlet, but before she could announce her decision, Tom said, “I’d like to see Jess try it on. Go on, Jess.”
Alan joined in. “Yeh go on, Jess, give it a go.”
Jess looked horrified. “Yuk! No way am I putting that on my head,” she said. “Rule 45, no manky wigs on a Saturday.”
“Oh go on, please…” Tom pleaded.
It could be hard to say no to Tom, but Jess stood her ground. For a moment, it looked as if one or other of them would lose this battle of wills with consequential bad grace, which would have been a sad way to end a bit of fun. Then Jess grinned, her small, white teeth contrasting attractively with her dark lips. Hands on hips, she cocked her head to one side and addressed Tom. “OK, then, tell you what. I’ll do it, but only if you try it first and walk from here down to the pier.”
Jess folded her arms and arranged her lips in a challenging pout. As a provocation, it was flawless and she knew herself to be on safe ground. She had aimed the dare perfectly to skewer Tom’s fragile dignity. It would not have worked on Alan, who would have carried out the dare without a second’s hesitation, but Tom was a completely different animal. Like observing cloud shadows moving on the contours of a hill, it was fun to watch Tom’s thoughts passing across his face, and as she watched Katie wondered whom he imagined he might accidentally bump into, and what shame and embarrassment he might consequently have to try to live down.
Evidently, the price was too high, and a few moments later he replied with, “Thanks, but nah. I’ll tell you what, though. I’ll bring it to the sofa tomorrow and you can try it on then. I’ll ask my mum to put it through the washing machine. How does that sound?”
To Katie it sounded like an intelligent way of saving face and avoiding unnecessary confrontation – a gold star for Tom. She removed the wig and gave her curls a shake.
Then a thought struck her, and she held out the wig towards Alan, who looked at it blankly; then, after a glance at Katie’s mischievous grin, he jumped backwards in mock terror, uttering a yell of alarm and gesturing frantically with his hands, as if the wig might be about to attack him.
“Come on, Alan, dare you do the Wig Walk?” she teased.
Alan stared into the sky and sniffed, then took the wig from Katie and gave it the once-over. He looked around at the others, still undecided but plainly giving the idea serious thought. “So what’s it worth?” he said at last. “I’m not doing it for nothing.”
Katie pondered this, but could think of not a single thing to trade that Alan might actually want. She thought of her sparsely furnished bedroom – pretty much empty apart from a tatty chest of drawers, a shelf of old jumble sale books, a few teddies and the bed itself. Florrie, Katie’s gran, never wearied of telling anyone who would listen how hard up she was, how she could only afford ‘the essentials’, which in her case comprised milk, tea bags, rich tea or digestive biscuits (plain ones though, never the chocolate sort), white sliced loaves, margarine and tinned jam, not forgetting the bottles of British sherry. And rolling tobacco – Gran smoked rollups.
Katie’s eyes drifted down to the handbag. Then she had an idea. “I know! My gran’s old radio set. It’s sitting in the shed. It don’t work but you can have it if you do the walk. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
That did the trick. Wearing his customary unsmiling resting expression and with exaggerated dignity, Alan took the wig from Katie and planted it over his own blonde short back and sides. Jess gave Alan a giggle of encouragement that only prompted him to overact even more. With the wig in place, and completely deadpan, he picked up his handbag and, swivelling around, began to walk with small steps in the direction of the pier while swinging the handbag and whistling something tuneless. Then began the clapping: first from Tom, clearly very impressed, and then Jess and Katie.
Alan briefly interrupted his journey to the pier with a short gallop down the steps to the beach. He picked up a large stone from the shingle bank and lobbed it into the sea, over the heads of a startled family picnic group, narrowly missing two children playing with a rubber ring.
“That’s Rule 205,” Tom expertly confided to Jess, who responded by rolling her eyes and describing a circle on her temple with a finger.
Rule 205 stemmed from the time Alan had found a pound note on the beach just after he had pitched a rock at a herring gull. He had missed, of course, but the cobble had landed in the surf with such a memorable kerploomp, and when he had looked down to select another pebble, there, right at his feet, lay the money. A gift from the sea, Alan reasoned. So, a gift for a gift. Rules always had reasons.
At the corner of Reed Park Road and Marine Drive, the four children said their goodbyes. “What time tomorrow?” Jess asked, and since they usually met at his house, the others waited for Alan to reply.
“It’ll have to be after two. We will have finished dinner by then and it’s Dad’s turn to be at church parade with the Scouts. Say three to be on the safe side.”
“Save me a roastie,” Katie said, only half-jokingly, as she crossed the road.
“And don’t forget the wireless,” Alan called back.
‘Tom Burns or Alan Cooper?’ A game she and Jess had played any number of times over the years when they were bored. If you had to choose one of them for a boyfriend, which would it be?
She turned into her front gate and passed Uncle Phil, one of the lodgers, on his way out. He greeted her with a pat on the head and called her ‘sweetie’. She hated that and screwed up her face. She didn’t mind him calling her sweetie, but she wasn’t a dog.
Tom or Alan? Usually, they both ended up arguing over Tom, whose good looks were undeniable, and who could protect you if any trouble broke out. And he could be fun sometimes, like when he tickled you, but otherwise he remained essentially humourless. He took life so seriously.
Alan seemed much the same in his nerdy, geeky way. Katie had seen inside his bedroom, which could have passed for a toyshop’s badly organised stock cupboard, except with a bed stuck in the corner. And undeniably, he was a bit odd. She remembered Tom telling them once that whenever Alan came out of the toilet he always, with one arm across his chest, raised an index finger skyward and intoned in a robotic voice, ‘To be continued…’
However, something she’d noticed today had registered on another scale of appeal. Sure, he’d worn the wig to get the radio, but Katie had an idea that he knew perfectly well what a ridiculous figure he cut. The slight wink as he set off for the pier had strengthened her suspicion. Alan Cooper, comedian. Interesting.