“Imagine getting this in the side of the head. Two-oh-five!” Alan kissed the cobble and hurled it like a grenade. The rock ricocheted off the pier support and disappeared with a kerploomp into the slack water. He picked up another and tossed it up and down in his hand, weighing its lethal potential like a tennis player bringing his mind into focus before a breaking serve. But unexpectedly, instead of throwing it, he offered it to Katie. “Go on, try and hit the pier.”
“I can’t.” She took the stone anyway, and let her arm dangle by her side, her light frame pulled from the vertical by the weight of the rock. She could feel Alan’s eyes on her, waiting to see what she would do. She decided in the end that whether she missed or hit wouldn’t be that big a deal. After all, it was Alan. Had Tom been there she might have thought twice about trying. She stepped forward to the sea’s edge and listened for a moment. Apart from the odd gull cry, the only sound was the rhythmic wash and slap of the dull, grey wavelets breaking at her feet, each one tugging at the shingle as it retreated. Her breathing now became the dominant noise in her head as she swung the rock backwards and forwards, a manic pendulum ticking away the seconds, rising ever higher, until the instant of its release. The rock arced forward, the roar from Alan seeming to lift it even higher, until its curving trajectory ended with a metallic clang as the rock struck the pier and dropped into the waves below.
“Yes!” Alan gripped her arms from behind. He lifted her into the air, swung her around and then set her down again. He put his chin on her shoulder. “See? You should have more belief in yourself. You might even get to be a scientist one day. Who knows?”
A crunch, crunch, crunch of shingle from behind alerted them to the arrival of another. Jess had found them, sadly chip-free and looking a little breathless. With her hair up, it probably meant she had just come from dance class. She carried the small grip that would contain her leotard and a towel. Having no dad and not much money qualified her for free lessons and, unusually for Jess, she had kept up her commitment and was now into her fifth year. “Hi guys, what y’doin’? Love at low tide is it, Alan?” she grinned.
Alan had been enjoying some exclusive Katie time and was not best pleased to see her. Nonetheless, he resisted the urge to answer with something sarcastic.
“Just a bit of Rule 205,” Katie said. “You know.”
“Appeasing the mighty sea gods,” Jess replied, and both girls giggled.
When they got together, girls could be really annoying. Alan scowled and moved a few yards down the beach to throw stones and pretend not to listen.
“Just seen your dad down near the lifeboat station,” Jess called after him, “doin’ something Christian with an old lady.”
“How was school today?” Katie asked.
Jess lifted one shoulder. “You know: lessons, stupid boys. That idiot Thomas Capes keeps following me around the playground, says he’s going to love me for eternity. What a drip.”
“I sympathise,” Katie said. “But cheer up. Gran says love is like constipation – it can’t last forever.”
“So, when you coming back?”
It was Katie’s turn to shrug. “Gran owes the school dinner money. No wedge, no college. I’m kind of on the run.”
“Rob asked where you were.”
Katie frowned and looked at Jess, who smiled slyly. “You remember, from English. He passed you that note.” She clasped her hands together. “‘I want to kiss every atom of your existence’,” she intoned hammily.
Katie felt her cheeks redden. “Oh, him. Wonder what book he stole that out of?”
“Romantic though, eh? Can’t imagine Tom or Alan ever writing that, can you?”
The girls overtook Alan, who made a point of ignoring them. They paused beneath the pier, the light there even gloomier than under the grey sky outside. Glancing up, Katie noticed a dog – a greyhound – at the top of the shingle bank, sitting beside something. A clump of old, abandoned clothing possibly, or a knot of accumulated beach flotsam. When it saw Katie, the dog sat up. It had a brindled coat with a white splash on its throat and chest. It looked eager and intelligent, and marked time with its paws on the shingle. A short lead, still attached to its leather collar, hung down by its side. It whined faintly, but still, it did not move.
“C’mon, let’s go and say hello,” Jess suggested.
The girls scrambled up the bank of sliding stones until they drew level with the dog, which had still not budged. The animal looked friendly and the girls encouraged it to stand with, ‘Good boy’, and, ‘Here boy’. Obediently, the dog stood but continued to whine softly as if in some kind of distress. As the girls moved closer, it become obvious that the dog was guarding something. But what? From afar, it had seemed to be nothing more than a pile of rags, but from a shorter distance, the girls could see that this wasn’t a heap of rubbish; it was a man, lying on his back with his eyes closed. He looked old and pale. His cap had fallen off and his wispy grey hair moved in time with the gusty breeze.
The girls looked at one another. “Hello? Hello?” Jess ventured hesitantly.
Katie knelt down and put her face close to the man’s.
“Is he dead?”
“No, he’s breathing, but not much. I can hear his breath. It’s like a gurgle.”
Behind them, they could hear Alan climbing the shingle, accompanied by Tom. Alan kept back a few yards and watched, but Tom immediately knelt down and pushed himself between the girls. “And what have we here, then? Is he dead? Hey, cute dog.”
“Shut up, will you?” Jess said.
Katie bit her lip. “What shall we do?”
“Well, he’s definitely not a tramp,” Tom said. “That’s a nice overcoat he’s wearing. A Crombie, I’ll bet. We could take his wallet and go up the town for some tea. What do you think, Alan?” He undid the top button and pulled the coat open. The others said nothing. Sometimes, you couldn’t tell if Tom was joking or serious. They watched as he reached inside the man’s coat. Probably bravado, Katie thought, but she never got the chance to find out because immediately the dog stood and showed its teeth, emitting a barely-audible growl, like a sports car engine ticking over. Tom slowly withdrew his hand and stood. “Or maybe not,” he said quietly.
A few moments passed as the children stood around the unconscious man. Once more, the dog sat and allowed Jess to tickle its ears. “We ought to get him on his side so he’s less likely to choke. We learned that at Guides,” Katie said. She picked up the lead and continued to stroke the dog’s head. “Good boy,” she encouraged, “that’s it.”
Katie looked at Alan and indicated with her eyes where she wanted him. “Get out of the way, Tom. C’mon, Alan, let’s move him.”
Both boys obeyed these clear commands and the dog did not intervene as the children pulled and pushed the man onto his side. They put his cap under his face to protect it from the shingle. His breathing did not change.
Jess handed the dog’s lead to Tom who looked grateful to have something to do. “The dog’s got a label on its collar,” she said.
Alan twisted it round to read the tag. “There’s an address and phone number: White Gates, Melrose Avenue, Medgate. Medgate 235. The dog’s name is Flora.”
Tom had taken over soothing the dog, scratching the top of her head and inviting Flora to offer her paw, which she did. “Melrose Avenue?” He gave a low whistle. “I did my first paper round up there. All big, detached places with fences, gates, and acres of garden. Hey, if we can get him home before he croaks we might get a reward.”
“Give it a rest, Tom.” Even Alan had had enough. “Though I guess this is not really our job, is it? We ought to fetch the police. Then it would be their job.”
From the shingle came the sound of weak coughing. The man’s eyelids flickered open and he lifted one trembling hand and felt towards his coat pocket. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly but his eyes communicated his thoughts. Jess knelt, slipped her hand into his pocket and retrieved a small, brown medicine bottle. She read the label aloud. “If heart palpitations occur, immediately place two drops under the tongue. Mr M Cook. Right, we’ll sit you up, Mr Cook. Alan, give me a hand.”
Jess and Alan pulled the man slowly into a sitting position, while Katie unscrewed the top of the bottle and squeezed the dropper. The man opened his mouth and she administered the medicine while the dog helped by resting his head on the man’s leg. Almost immediately, the man became less pale. His breathing became deeper and less laboured as colour returned to his face. He actually weighed little and the children were able to move him a few feet so that he could sit with his back against a pier upright. He even managed to give them a weak smile.
“C’mon, he’s alright now. Let’s leave him,” Tom said impatiently, and pulled at Jess’s sleeve.
However, the others were reluctant to move just yet. “I want to wait a bit,” Jess replied. “He might not be all right, and anyway what’s the hurry? Katie, what do you think we should do?”
“Help, of course.”
Alan had taken over dog-stroking duties, sitting beside the man and alternately stroking the dog’s back and gently patting his ribs. The man’s hand lifted and weakly gripped Jess’s wrist. “Help, me, get, home.” He puffed out each word slowly, needing a whole breath for each one.
Jess lifted the dog’s tag. “This your address?” She spoke slowly and clearly, as one tends to when addressing an invalid. The man nodded.
“How did you get here?”
“Ran here, obviously,” Tom said cuttingly, clearly bemused by all this concern for a complete stranger.
Katie kicked his shin. “Just shut up and listen.”
The man took another gulp of air. “Taxi,” came the barely audible reply.
“Mum says this part of town was built before the First World War,” Jess said as the taxi entered Melrose Avenue.
“Ooh, quite the local historian, aren’t we?” Tom replied sourly. “I don’t know why we’re wasting our time with this. And we’ll have to walk back.” Tom could be very stubborn sometimes, especially when obviously in the wrong.
“Don’t worry about that,” the man said over his shoulder. “Ron will take you back, won’t you, Ron?” The man seemed more or less fully recovered and he spoke in a normal, if rather posh, voice.
“’Course, Mr Cook,” the taxi driver replied in cheerful cockney tones.
Tom occupied the taxi's tip-down, rear-facing seat, while the others had spread out on the back seat, with Alan between the girls. Flora seemed happy to share the rear of the taxi and sat with her head in Katie’s lap.
The taxi slowed and then turned into the entrance of an imposing, detached pink-rendered house. It halted in front of a pair of tall, wooden gates. Not wanting to miss a single detail, Katie pressed her nose against the window. The house was set far enough back from the road to accommodate a large front garden, which Katie glimpsed through railings that led away on either side of the gates. Immaculately trimmed and weeded, with small, angular flowerbeds and geometric patterns of low, clipped hedging, the garden reminded her of the more formal end of Memorial Park. Apart from a smattering of primulas and small-flowered violets, it was still too early in the year for there to be much colour. Clusters of fat-budded, glossy-leaved rose bushes attended quietly, biding their time, awaiting summer’s starting gun.
The driver turned and looked directly at Tom. “Do us a flavour, mate, and open those gates, will you?” He spoke in a gruff cockney manner that clearly implied he did not expect an argument. Tom scowled but did not contest the instruction and, as he alighted, the driver smiled and winked at the others. “You can leave them open!” he yelled through the open window and did not bother waiting for Tom as he drove the last fifty yards and pulled up in front of the house. “Here we are then, Mr C. Home sweet home.”
“Thank you, Ron. I’m more than usually pleased to see it today, and it’s all thanks to these young people that I can.” Mr Cook turned and faced them. “Can you stay for tea? I do hope you can. I have no doubt Mrs C will rustle up something for us all. Ron, you’re invited too. I know you and Mrs C like to exchange news, and you’re very welcome to join her.”
Katie was always hungry, and with relief saw that the others looked equally reluctant to turn down this offer of a free meal. The children nodded, even Tom, who seemed to have resolved his current disagreement with the world during his lone walk down the drive.
“Oh good! That’s settled, then. Now come and meet my family, such as they are these days.” Mr Cook ran his hand up and down the greyhound’s vertical lower jaw as she gazed up towards her owner’s face. “And you’ve already met Flora.”
Last out of the taxi, Katie held on to Flora’s lead. She looked around her. The house was not quite a mansion, but not far off. The building’s pink render glowed in a brief blink of late afternoon sun in a way that made it hard not to feel at home. The tall, gridded windows of the ground floor gave way to less formal designs, with rounded tops and church-like mullions, on the second floor. Undoubtedly, the most striking features of the house were the very tall, brick chimneys poking out of a steeply pitched, grey slate roof. Three smaller dormer windows signposted the presence of a third floor.
However, this wasn’t the focus of Katie’s interest. On their journey down the drive, Katie had noticed, at the side of the house, a long, two-storey outbuilding whose row of stable doors hinted at its purpose. The upper half of each door, except the one at the far end of the block, stood open but, sadly, there were no animals in sight. She wondered if Mr Cook kept horses and made a mental note to enquire later.
A tall, imposing woman, dressed in a black, old-fashioned style of maid’s uniform, opened the front door. Still drying her hands on a pinafore marked here and there with streaks and patches of kitchen-related colour that might have been jam or soup or gravy, her unsmiling expression immediately focused with clear concern on the master of the house. “And what time d’you call this, Mr C?” she scolded. “You were due home over two hours ago. I had begun to worry.”
Despite the garb, the woman cut a very modern figure. Her dark brown hair, pinned up untidily, had been left unattended for many hours, and random strands had escaped capture and now wafted on either side of her handsome European face. With one hand she quickly brushed back the stray hair and with the other took Mr Cook’s elbow, to help him over the threshold.
“Oh, I was in very good hands, Mrs C, never fear. I’ve brought these new friends home for tea. I do hope that won’t be too inconvenient.”
Plainly unfazed, but arching one eyebrow, the woman turned to appraise the children. Her face pretended astonishment as if they had suddenly dropped onto the doorstep from another dimension. With hands resting on hips, she gazed into each of their faces, while nodding almost imperceptibly as if counting sheep into a pen. “Mmm, new friends, is it?” she said finally. “Well, I just hope your daughters didn’t eat us out of pastries last weekend. I think we might be down to our last half dozen boxes of Jaffa Cakes.”
With a deft movement of her head and eyes, the woman silently invited the taxi driver in, to assist Mr Cook off with his coat. “Follow me, if you please,” she said to the children. “You may wait in the lounge. Please do not touch anything.” The woman led the way to the rear of the house and showed them into a long, well-lit room that gave access through a set of French windows to the back garden patio.
Katie crossed the room and looked out into the garden. To the right, she could just see the stables but still there were no signs of any occupants. It would soon be May but the garden, so drab and uninviting in the cold, grey light, had yet to wake up to the fact. A few optimistic trees had sent out early leaves, rueful and submissive harbingers that now drooped penitently in anticipation of the next heavy shower. Along the edges of the patio, wind and rain had blown and washed pink cherry blossom into long drifts that had now begun to rot. The only cheerful show of colour came from a bed of pale pink and yellow hellebores by the greenhouses.
Despite all this, Katie could tell the garden was well looked after, and, gardening being a common pursuit for retired people, wondered if this might be Mr Cook’s main hobby. Did he keep horses too, yet another possible retirement interest? Maybe, and she would definitely enquire before they left. She tried the door handle and, before she could stop herself, landed outside on the patio. The pink-tinted render, which covered the front of the house, did not extend to the back, where instead the orange-brown stone blocks of the building’s fabric had been left exposed. Darker, horizontal bands within each stone gave every block its own distinct character. To give shelter on rainy days, the entire length of the house’s rear had been clad with a veranda constructed from intricately designed, black-painted iron. The structure was roofed with grey slate, except for the spaces above the windows where the slate gave way to panes of plain glass. It reminded Katie of Medgate railway station.
“Get back in, will you?” she heard Tom yell from inside. “It’s damn draughty!”
Katy was happy to oblige, remembering that they were only minutes away from food! Back inside, she moved away from the windows and began a slow perambulation. A cheerful coal fire gave a pleasant heat to the elegantly furnished room. A large, oval table surrounded with a dozen high-backed chairs, all made from the same dark, highly polished wood, dominated the end of the room nearest the door. The seat cushions, upholstered with a red and white striped material that matched the wallpaper, looked unused. On a white linen doily in the centre of the table sat a capacious china fruit bowl, piled high with apples, oranges, grapes and a soft fruit that, from their colour, Katie guessed might be apricots. Where would you buy apricots at this time of year, or grapes come to that? Standard lamps in the far corners furnished pools of warm light that diluted the cold unfriendliness of the day outside. As the woman said, it was a ‘look but don’t touch’ kind of room. Compared to the shabby, utilitarian spaces she routinely occupied, it seemed so perfect, like a scene from a TV advert for Christmas, or a museum tableau portraying life in a country vicarage a hundred years ago.
Apart from soft, sizzling sounds from the fireplace (the fire had recently been banked up and the fresh coal steamed and murmured) the room was silent, all noise muffled by the thick carpets, heavy drapes and upholstered furniture. Even Tom was lost for words. He settled on the floor next to the radiogram and began flipping through a rack of LPs. Alan’s attention had been drawn to a glass-fronted cabinet that housed a battalion of toy soldiers. He leaned his head on the glass and peered in, fascinated. Katie knew that if it had not been for the woman’s instruction he would have had them all out on the floor in an instant.
Katie drifted back to the window and Jess joined her. She pointed at the stables. “I’m going to ask Mr Cook if he keeps any horses.”
Jess smiled. “Ever hopeful, eh? Maybe one day your dream will come true.” Unlike Katie, Jess had actually been on the back of a horse but had found out quickly that she didn’t like it that much and hadn’t asked for a second lesson.
“Look at this!” Tom had pulled a record out of the rack and now waved it above his head. “Rubber Soul! Somebody in the house is a Beatles fan anyway. Christ, there must be two hundred records here. If I owned this lot, I wouldn’t let them out of my sight. I mean, he has no idea who we are, does he? I mean we could be…”
Tom never got a chance to finish his sentence because at that moment the woman re-entered the room, carrying an enormous metal tray holding plates piled high with sandwiches, cake and biscuits. Mr Cook followed, pushing a trolley that carried the tea things. “Sit yourselves down, children. I do hope you’re hungry as I hate seeing good food go to waste.” Watching their faces, and seeing their round eyes, he thought there was probably very little chance of that. The woman left them to it, giving the fire a prod before she departed.
“So, I’m Mr Cook. My first name is Michael but I prefer Mike, if you wouldn’t mind, or keep it as Mr Cook if you prefer. Now, tell me your names before we begin.” The children introduced themselves and the man shook hands with each of them very formally, as if they were visiting dignitaries rather than just a bunch of scruffy schoolchildren.
The man had changed from his outdoor clothes into jeans and a t-shirt and had brushed his hair back biker-style, all of which made him look about twenty years younger. He looked taller than Katie remembered from the beach and had an upright way of holding himself, as an army officer might do. To Tom, who knew a bit about the Beatles, he rather resembled George Martin, the man who did their studio recording and who sometimes featured in the fan magazines.
The four munched away happily. Mr Cook contented himself with a sandwich and a cup of tea while the others laid into the feast as if it might be snatched away at any moment.
After a while, when the pace of consumption had slackened, Katie sat back and inspected their host. He looked a bit older than Alan’s dad, who Alan told her was forty-six, but not much older. Thus, as a young man he would most likely have been something in the war. It seemed rude just to ask him for his life story, but curiosity overcame her caution. “Is your wife, I mean Mrs C, going to join us?” she said as an opening gambit.
Mr Cook frowned. “My wife?” he said, puzzled. Then his face cleared. “Oh, Mrs Comfort is my housekeeper. Mrs C… now I see the source of the confusion. No, my wife won’t be joining us. I hope,” he added after a pause. The others momentarily suspended their demolition of the food mountain and listened attentively. “You see, we’ve been divorced for some years. If you want to know the secret of a happy marriage, start with low expectations and never, ever, allow them to rise.”
The room became hushed and motionless, the stillness seeming to amplify every fragment of sound until even the children’s light-footed shuffling seemed intrusive. The conversation had strayed into adult territory. The youngsters exchanged uneasy glances. Mr Cook, equally aware of the awkward pause and by way of changing the subject, said brightly, “So, are you all at the same school?”
“We’re all at Reed Park Secondary,” Jess replied. She could tell his question was just a conversation starter because he did not seem very interested in the answer.
“And what’s that like?”
Jess thought about it. How could you sum up the whole school experience in a sentence? “Well, it’s…”
“Blimmin’ horrible,” Tom spluttered, his mouth bulging with a mixture of shrimp paste sandwich and buttered tea loaf.
“I was never very impressed by school either,” Mr Cook replied to Tom. “As a magic ladder to some mythical land of happiness and plenty, I think education is vastly overrated.” He noticed the children staring at him, and so added, “Sorry, but I’m English; I can’t help it. It’s the English way – irony, ambiguity, hypocrisy.”
The children had never heard an adult speak about school like this. “So, what is school for?” Tom asked with genuine puzzlement. This being the first time that they had had given it a thought, the others leaned forward in anticipation of his reply. But Mr Cook shrugged and smiled, but said nothing.
Alan picked up the slack. “Actually, most of us think school’s OK. My dad says Reed Park has a good ethos. They look after you, pretty much. They stamp on bullying hard, so you feel safe there. I don’t mind going.”
“The science department is pretty decent,” Katie added.
“Oh, good. Science was my favourite subject. I remember once we had a school trip to a brewery. Fascinating. You’re interested in science, Katie?”
The others laughed; even Tom got the irony.
“She’s a science nut. That, and horses,” Jess said with a laugh.
“She’s in love with the science teacher,” Tom added. Katie flushed and shot him a glare, but didn’t deny it.
“Got any ambitions, Tom? I get the impression you’re a bit of a sportsman.”
“Cheese farmer,” Tom spluttered from an overfull mouth. “Definitely not enough cheese in the world.”
“Funny man. What about you, Alan? Do you have any burning ambitions?”
Alan sucked his top lip and looked thoughtful for a moment, then he said, “No, not really. My dad says he can get me a job at the bank after I leave school. He works at the Eastern, in town. And being left in peace, I suppose, if you can call that an ambition.”
Mr Cook nodded. “I think I’d class that as an ambition.” Then he turned to Jess. “So, what about you, Jessica? What do you like?”
For a second Jess looked startled, but quickly recovered. Composing her features, as one tends to when in the spotlight, she replied, “I like art and drama the best. I want to be a photographer when I leave school. Fashion or maybe reporting on wars, something like that.” She had never discussed her likes and dislikes or her future with any adult before, even her mother. In fact, it was rare for anyone to ask Jess what she thought about anything.
“Oh, interesting you should say that,” Mr Cook said. “Photography has always been an interest of mine too, since quite a young boy in fact. I still have a darkroom set up in one of the upstairs rooms, although I haven’t used it in a while.”
Jess was thrilled. At school, they had a darkroom in the art department, but she had never seen inside it. Did she dare ask this man for a look at his?
“What’s happened to the modelling career?” Katie couldn’t help herself asking, since Jess had said nothing more since their chat at the dump.
“Mum thinks I’ll do better behind the camera,” Jess replied simply, and left Katie to make of that what she liked.
The man listened intently as the children chatted about their lives. The banter was light, as it is among people who have come trust one another. The time passed quickly and only when the mantelpiece clock struck six did they realise they had been sitting in that room for nearly two hours.
“Christ, look at the time!” Alan said, looking rather panicked. “I should be back home by now.”
Mr Cook rose from the table. “No problem. Ron will have you home in a jiffy. Now, don’t forget your coats.”
The taxi still waited outside. Tom took the front seat and the others arranged themselves in the back. Mr Cook came out to wave them off. Katie had never managed to ask him her most important question. Seizing the moment, she leaned forward and rolled down the window. “Are your stables still in use?” she shouted as the taxi began to move.
Mr Cook smiled. “Oh yes, Katie, they’re still in use.”
She stood now and leaned out of the window as the taxi made a wide arc on the gravel and prepared to leave. “Can we come again?”
“I hope you will, all of you,” the man called over the clatter of the taxi’s engine. “Talk to Ron, he can arrange it.” Mr Cook waved until the taxi reached the gates and turned out into Melrose Avenue. Mrs Comfort had left the kitchen and stood in the doorway to watch the children leave. Standing aside, she let Mr Cook enter, and then closed the door.