Katie’s complaining stomach was loud enough to draw glances from passers-by as the children walked along the sea front. After a busy morning at the dump, and with a few bob in their pocket, they had only one destination in mind – Tony Demarco’s Italian Ristorante and Ice Cream Parlour.
For a Saturday lunchtime, Tony’s was not especially busy. The corner café, an Italian ex-prisoner-of-war’s idea of what an American diner should look like, even though he’d only ever seen them in films, had become an important element of the children’s lives growing up in Medgate-on-Sea. Part coffee shop, part ice cream parlour and part greasy spoon café, Demarco’s had become the venue of choice whenever any of them had a few shillings in their pocket, though these were occasions that didn’t happen nearly often enough. Tom was the first to encourage their visits. His father Len claimed a remote cousinship with Tony’s wife Brenda, and consequently he, Linda, and Tom had frequently enjoyed their Sunday dinner in there. No money ever seemed to change hands, the meal concluding instead with a whispered conversation between Len and Tony over at the counter that ended with vigorous handshakes and nods and shouts of ‘Arrivederci!’ and ‘Cheers, mate!’ as the family collected their coats.
Usually, Tony tried to put the children in a gloomy back corner, where they could cause the least annoyance to other customers, but today he didn’t seem to be around and the four were able to occupy their preferred window seat near the front door, with its view of the seafront and the pier. Tom and Alan took up the spaces opposite one another nearest the window. They slid along the red leather bench seats, with the girls following: Jess with Tom and Katie with Alan. Before anyone could stop him Alan picked up a menu and squinted studiously at the smudged typing, although his bothering to look was completely pointless since the bill of fare had not changed for at least the last five years, and neither had the prices. Without undue effort, any of the children could have recited the entire menu by heart, chanting their way through the list like a gastronomic mantra. Nevertheless, Alan greatly enjoyed this little ritual, if only because it made Katie giggle and Tom cross. “Hmm, let’s see now…” he began.
“For Christ’s sake shut him up,” Tom grumbled. “I’ll go up and order; it’ll be quicker.” Jess began to slide along the seat to let him out.
With narrowed eyes, Katie darted a reproving glance at Tom, then leaned over towards Alan. “What about the spaghetti?” she suggested, her cool, grey eyes filled with devilment.
Completely deadpan, Alan stroked his chin and struck a pose of deep contemplation. “Yes…” he breathed, before Tom returned and snatched the menu out of his hand. He didn’t bother to wait for Jess to let him in, and sat heavily on her lap as he squeezed past.
“Ow! Get off me, you great lump,” she complained half-heartedly.
“Right, tea and toast’s on its way. Now to business.”
Katie surveyed her friends. They looked grubbier and even more dishevelled than usual, and they reeked of smoke. She noticed a well-dressed, matronly woman sitting at a nearby table begin to look around while sniffing the air. The woman frowned deeply and drew in her bottom lip, to expose tombstone-like top teeth. Then her head began swivelling to right and left, her nostrils twitching like a constipated rabbit, until her eyes fell with suspicion on the children. She eyed Tom. “Have you children been smoking?” she barked. All four shook their heads and tried their hardest to look innocent – not too difficult in this particular case, because they were.
Not satisfied, the woman glared even harder until Alan piped up. “Excuse us miss for being a bit smelly,” he intoned solemnly, “but there was a fire. What you can smell is burnt furniture.”
Without missing a beat, Jess joined in with, “Yes missus, it was terrible. The fire so hot this coat nearly melted.” She made big eyes and leaned her head on Tom’s arm.
Tom caught on. “Yeh. Chairs, tables, wardrobes, books. All gone in a flash. Terrible, it was.” He ruffled his hair and a few small cinders obligingly sprang out and landed on the table, and then to crown the performance he let out a barking cough worthy of a rutting walrus. Jess covered her mouth and briefly caught Katie’s eye. Instinctively, both girls took a sudden interest in the view.
The woman held her fist to her mouth and suppressed a sob. “Oh you poor, poor things, how you must be suffering,” she prattled. “I’m so, so sorry, I had no idea. What a terrible experience you’ve been through.” She looked around the room distractedly and then her eyes alighted on the menu. “I know,” she said brightly, “how about choosing something from the ice cream list. Would that help you get over your awful experience?”
“An ice cream?” repeated Alan in a faraway voice.
“Yes,” she babbled. “Choose anything you want. Please.” She waved the menu towards the children. Katie took it and pretended to study the list, although none of the children actually needed to consult the menu since they knew it better than their times tables. She passed it to Alan and, as he had been the instigator of this piece of nonsense, the others waited for him to speak. He sighed. “The peach melba, please,” he said at last, somehow managing to make it sound as if he was doing the woman a favour by accepting her offer.
“And for your friends?”
Katie half raised an arm. “Peach melba?”
Tom began a dramatic coughing fit, causing Jess to flinch. She adopted an expression of mild nausea and raised her hand to shield the side of her face. When he’d sufficiently recovered, Tom managed a weak, “Knickerbocker Glory, thanks.”
“Same here,” Jess added tersely. There had been quite enough amateur dramatics, she thought, watching as Tom slowly returned to a more normal colour.
To Katie’s relief, the woman paid and left before the ice creams arrived. Katie had half-imagined they would be watched. Trying to eat ice cream while looking miserable probably exceeded the thespian capabilities of any of them. Ten minutes passed in silence while they devoured the unexpected treats. After they had all finished, Alan being last needless to say, they sat back and grinned at one another. “Alan, I have to hand it to you,” Tom said in admiration.
“It wasn’t much, really. I just told the truth; she made up the rest herself. Remember, Katie, from Hamlet: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.”
“That’s fourteen bob’s worth of ice cream we’ve just woofed,” Jess observed, as she licked the last scrapings off her spoon. “Not bad for one sob story. But I don’t know; to me it felt a bit like begging. I wouldn’t like to rely on it and, besides, how many mad old bats are there in Medgate anyway?”
“Well, this time our trip to the dump turned out to be well worth it,” Alan said through a mouthful of toast.
“Yeh, it was fun,” Katie added, “but how often are we going to find enough bottles to fill a crate? Probably not every week, maybe only once a month.” As a reliable source of income, even Alan had to concede the dump made a poor long term bet.
Katie finished first and waited by the door with a half slice of Jess’s toast in her mouth. She buttoned her raincoat and then pulled the toast in half and chewed. Abruptly, the street door behind her swung open and hit her on the back of the head, and not lightly either. She pitched forward, dropping her precious snack. Nevertheless, as the eight-second rule applied, even in public places, she bent to retrieve it, but this time the door hit her on the bottom and sent her sprawling across the floor. As she sat up the cause of her assault came into focus.
Two men, dressed in black suits cut in a style that looked ten years out of date, had entered the café. Both looked like it would do them good to get out in the fresh air more often. The one at the front, a huge blimp of a man, barrel-chested and completely bald, was presumably the door opener. With no neck and slits for eyes, his head resembled a balloon with teeth. The blobby man seemed oblivious to the girl sprawled on the floor in front of him, probably because he couldn’t see anything beyond the horizon of his huge rib cage, and Katie had to roll out of the way very quickly to avoid having her leg crushed.
The other man looked at least a foot shorter. His sallow, pitted cheeks implied a blatant disregard for any teenage advice on the subject of picking one’s blackheads. With thin black hair, Brylcreemed back Teddy boy style, a narrow face and beady, darting eyes, his appearance could be no better summarised than as rat-like. But the rodent-faced man did at least notice her and, surmising what had probably just happened, mumbled a ‘sorry’. Then, without waiting to see if she was OK, he stepped over her and continued walking past the customers, towards the kitchen door at the back of the café, pausing only to wipe something off the end of his finger onto a tablecloth. Katie had a feeling she’d seen him somewhere before.
Jess moved first and reached Katie’s side in an instant. She pulled the dazed child to her feet and helped straighten her raincoat and push the hair back from her face. “Y’OK?”
Katie nodded. “I’ll live.”
The girls watched the two men as they reached the kitchen door. The Balloon with Teeth pushed open the swing door for his boss, but before entering, the small man checked the room. His eyes fell on the girls and he paused his inspection, and then his sour expression changed into something resembling a grin. Looking at Jess, he mimicked dialling a telephone and Katie watched as she returned the faintest of nods. The man lifted his hat, his smirk widening to expose two rows of nicotine-stained teeth. Then he turned and disappeared through the open door.
Outside, the others gathered around Katie; even Tom looked slightly concerned. “You OK?” he said.
“Yeh, I’m fine. But what a pair of idiots!” she huffed, rubbing the back of her head and then her behind. “It’s probably just the universe paying me back for conning that woman. Who the hell…?” But Katie had recognised him, the smaller one. It was the bloke from the dodgems. She glanced towards Jess for confirmation but found her modelling friend had taken a sudden, studious interest in the sea view.
“Karma,” Alan said. “We were talking about that in RE. If it is some sort of cosmic payback, do you think it was worth it; a free ice cream for a bump on the head?”
“Oh, most definitely!” Katie exclaimed, and grinned. “Most definitely. Although…”
“Well, thanks for taking one for the team,” Alan said.
The children drifted along Marine Drive, taking up the whole pavement in the way that teenagers do (and probably always have done), jostling one another and walking backwards while still holding a conversation. Curiously, Tom had been silent since they’d left Tony’s, but it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to read puzzlement, alternating with concern, taking turns to inform his countenance. “You know,” he began, during a lull in the conversation, “there was something familiar about that small bloke back in Tony’s. I’ve definitely seen him somewhere before.”
“Nice company you keep,” Jess observed tartly, her pleading glance fortunately enough to dissuade Katie from mentioning their own previous encounter or the exchange inside Tony's, which the boys seemed to have missed.
Characteristically, Tom took not the slightest notice of Jess’s remark. He stopped walking, as if he found the effort of doing two things at the same time too demanding. The others formed a small audience in front of him. “Yes, and now I remember where. My dad worked for him before he went inside. He stopped for a chat once when Dad was walking me to school.” Tom’s voice had become strident, its tone now bordering on the belligerent. Katie could see the colour rising in his neck and cheeks – never a good sign. “He’s the bloke Dad blames for his jail sentence,” Tom continued, unable to mask his truculence. “His name’s Wilkins. My dad says he’s a conniving ba– “The sentence never completed because, at last, Tom had registered Jess’s glances over his shoulder and her disapproving glare. He turned to look. From further along the street a tall man smoking a pipe and carrying a long, black object, walked towards them. It was Alan’s dad, clutching his trombone case.
“Hi, Dad!” Alan shouted and waved.
The man acknowledged his son with a faint smile and promptly crossed the road to continue his journey.
“Must be going to a band practice,” Alan said matter-of-factly. He could see Katie looking at him, so he added, “You know what he’s like. He never says a lot. Been like that since Mum died.”
The simple statement evidenced no self-pity; it was just the way things were in the Cooper household. Alan’s display of stoicism put Tom’s current disgruntlement into some kind of perspective, even for Tom. In any case, his recent outburst had left him feeling slightly foolish and he slumped onto a garden wall, hands thrust deep in pockets, and blew air out through pursed lips. Instinctively, the others settled on either side of him and the four lounged there together, waiting for the emotional dust to settle. They watched Alan’s dad turn right into the cul-de-sac that led to the scout hut where the brass band practiced.
Just to keep the conversation going, Jess said, “Is your dad’s band any good? I mean, do people come and see them play?”
“They are very good, as it happens,” Alan replied. “Although personally I think they don’t get the size of audience they deserve.”
“I’m not surprised,” Katie remarked. “Stuck with a name like The Inoperable Tubas. Who thought that up, for God’s sake?”
Alan shrugged. “Who cares? I think my dad just does it to take his mind off other things.” He turned to Tom, whom he could tell still brooded on recent events. “I get the impression this Wilkins character doesn’t exactly represent the pinnacle of human development,” he remarked. “Do you think he remembered you?”
“Dunno. No, I don’t think so. Don’t think he saw me. Anyway, it’s been a couple of years, so chances are he wouldn’t have recognised me,” Tom replied.
“Wonder what he was doing in Tony’s?” Katie pondered.
“He hadn’t just popped in for egg and chips, that’s for sure,” Alan replied.
By this time, Tom had recovered his composure and the four resumed their meandering journey up Marine Drive. “Dad says a lot of the small businesses in Medgate pay Wilkins to keep the peace.”
Katie looked puzzled. “Pay him for what, exactly?”
“It’s a case of, if you don’t pay him, you come in to work next day to find somebody’s smashed your front window.”
“So why don’t they go to the police?”
“Probably because they’re in on it. They get a cut, and in return they turn a blind eye to what Wilkins and his mates get up to.”
Katie’s mouth gaped. This could not be true, surely. She looked at Jess, who appeared equally shocked. “That’s just plain wrong. Are all policemen like this? How can they get away with it?”
Tom looked exasperated at the girls’ naivety. “Because there are a lot of greedy people around. Duh.”
“And presumably a lot of frightened people too,” Alan added.
Tom nodded. “Exactly. And no, not all coppers are bent. My dad says it’s usually the higher-ups. He used to see them at the club he worked at, drinking champagne at ten o’clock in the morning and bragging about their holidays in Spain.” Nobody would ever think to congratulate Tom on being the most articulate thirteen-year-old on the planet but, on matters of crime and punishment, he spoke with confidence and authority, probably because he’d witnessed so many similar conversations at home. “My dad’s not frightened of him. He says Wilkins is the one who’ll pay when he gets out of prison.”
Katie had heard enough. Talk of prison and crime frightened her. Yet she wanted to know more, and in spite of her better instincts said, “How come?”
“Dad says he knows things. He’s overheard conversations about their schemes. He could make it hot for them if he threatened to go to the papers.”
“But he’s just one bloke,” Jess scoffed. “How’s he going to threaten a whole industry of organised crime?”
“Because he’s smarter than them,” Tom retorted. “He’ll outwit the lot of them, you’ll see.”
“He’s smarter than the average bear, Boo Boo,” Katie mimicked, and instantly regretted it. “No offence,” she squealed, and cowered as Tom made a half-hearted attempt to stuff some leaves he ripped out of a garden hedge down her neck.
To Alan it sounded like even Tom had doubts about his father’s qualifications as a criminal mastermind, and it seemed like a very good moment to change the subject. “So, are we any nearer to deciding what we’re going to try for our next money-making venture?”
For want of any better ideas, they had drifted back to Alan’s sofa. Jess pulled a notebook and Biro out of her shoulder bag and made a list of all the possibilities they had so far discussed.
“Hands up if you want to try window cleaning,” she said. Nobody’s hand moved although, from her horizontal perch on the others’ laps, just for a laugh, Katie stuck one leg up in the air. Jess crossed that one off. “The dump again?” With another choice eliminated, that left only two. “How about car washing, then?” Tom voted for that one, which prompted her to join him. “And finally, the zoo.” As expected, Alan and Katie cast their vote for the last remaining option.
Alan fumbled in his jacket pocket and retrieved the stubby end of a tube of Refreshers. “Well, that’s it now; we’ve decided. Next Saturday we’ll give it a go.” He offered everyone a sweet. “Here’s to our success,” he said. “Cheers everyone, and good luck.” He held out his Refresher and the others held out theirs. They clinked sweets and popped them into their mouths. “That was a sweet moment,” Katie said, as they left for home, and the others laughed, even Tom.