4. Sofa Meeting
Sunday in Medgate-on-Sea – a day that might as well not exist. Saturday had been and gone. Anything that might pass for excitement only ever happened on a Saturday. Actually, nothing exciting had happened yesterday either, but at least the possibility had been there. Tomorrow it would be school again. Flipping school.
“I am shoved up. You shove up more!” Tom gave Jess a hard push with his shoulder, setting her dangly earrings swinging and causing Katie to squeal.
“Ow! You’re crushing me. GET OFF!” Katie protested from inside her rain hood. A mouse squeak was probably louder. As usual, she wore her blue school raincoat. Tatty jeans, white socks and old school plimsolls concealed the rest of her. The day was sufficiently cool that if you huffed steadily you could see your breath, and to keep warm she had pushed her hands up each opposite sleeve, to leave absolutely nothing exposed to the air.
Alan had been the last one to squeeze into their makeshift den – actually just an abandoned sofa they had found in his dad’s garage a couple of years ago when they were still at junior school. They had humped it down to the bottom of the garden and parked it on its back, behind the compost bins, a spot completely hidden from the house. They had ‘borrowed’ four stakes from a pile by the greenhouse and hammered them in to the ground, one at each corner of the sofa, and on top, they had nailed an old sheet of corrugated iron to make a serviceable roof. It even sloped gently forward, like a real roof, to shed the rain and keep the sofa dry during most normal climatic events. The sofa had been tipped up so that now the seat formed the back and the back formed the seat, and very snug it could be, but with all four of them squashed in there it had perhaps become a bit too cosy. The children had definitely grown since last summer.
Even in the ten minutes since they had arrived at their den the rain had intensified and, like a random army of tiny, demented drummers, now beat relentlessly in waves on the tin roof.
“Since you were the last in, Alan, you’ll have to stand outside,” Tom announced curtly.
Drops of rain had found their way onto the toes of Jess’s bright red patent leather shoes and she took one off and wiped it carefully on her sleeve. “Stand out in the rain? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” she said, and gave Tom a brief sideways look to make sure he understood the point. Sometimes, Tom did take notice of what she said, but her intuition told her that probably this was not one of those times and, in anticipation of an imminent wrestling match between the two boys, she replaced the shoe and pulled her legs in even tighter.
“That’s not fair, Tom!” Katie chipped in, her muffled voice floating out from somewhere deep inside her hood. She pulled down the hood and glared briefly at an unrepentant Tom, who responded by wriggling even more forcefully. “You’re the biggest, you lummox. Why don’t you get out?” she finished and disappeared once more into her hood.
“Yeh, Tom,” Jess chipped in. “For starters, it’s Alan’s flaming sofa.” She held her skirt to her legs. “And, I’m not going out. No way. I’m not dressed for standing out in this weather.”
Alan had said nothing. He had removed his shoes, standard sofa protocol (Rule 94), but had not yet stowed them on the shelf behind them – actually just the gap between the sofa and the tin roof. With a well-practised sigh, he began to put them back on until Katie leaned forwards, pulled her hood down again and yelled at him. “ALAN COOPER, STOP RIGHT NOW! There’d be room for everyone if some of us weren’t getting a bit too big for our boots, not mentioning any names. Just wait a sec.” She squeezed out of her space and proceeded to shimmy forward, accompanied by tepid cries of ‘Ow!’ and ‘Careful where you put your elbows!’ until she had draped herself across the laps of the other three, feet at Tom’s end, head at Alan’s.
“There,” she said. “Sorted.” And it was. Katie being the smallest of the four children, it was the only way round the arrangement could possibly have worked. Jess was too tall to have lain horizontally and both the boys would have been far too heavy for anyone to stand their weight for long. Although neither boy was fat, Alan was quite tall (he and Jess tied at present) and Tom was stocky and muscular.
By far the sportiest of the gang, Tom hated to lose at anything. He trained seriously and, as well as playing for the school first eleven, belonged to an under fifteens Sunday morning football team. It often kept him busy through the winter months, either playing or training.
Alan, being the polar opposite, avoided sport like poison. Given the choice, he would much prefer to read or fiddle about with model trains or make Airfix kits. If anyone had bothered to think about it they might have puzzled over why Alan and Tom were friends at all, but friends they undeniably were.
The children shuffled about some more until all were comfortable. Alan smiled down at Katie and she smiled back, and for a while the only sound came from the rain’s unrelenting rat-a-tat on the tin roof and the zik, zik of Tom’s lighter as he flicked the wheel, hoping perhaps to confound the laws of physics by producing a flame from a device that had no fuel and no means of kindling a spark.
“Oh, my God!” Jess squealed suddenly, waving a hand vigorously in front of her face. “What is that smell?” Soon it had reached the other end of the sofa and Alan began a fake coughing fit while Katie pretended to retch.
“Sorry,” Tom said, not sounding in the least sorry. “Better out than in, as they say.”
The sofa soon reverted to damp silence. Just for something to do, Jess removed her shoes for a moment, straightened her legs and let the rain tickle her toes. “If we had a quid we could go to the zoo,” she said brightly, just for something to say. If she had hoped to break the funereal mood, she must have been disappointed.
“Or if we had ten bob, even, we could all go swimming,” Katie added, a keen swimmer, even in April.
Alan poked Katie on the nose. “I think I’d rather stare at a moth-eaten lion for the 43rd time than freeze my parts off in that swimming pool. The water’s always icy cold, even in summer. The blue tiles don’t help; why didn’t they use orange tiles? I bet the attendants are down there right now, trying to break the ice with poles.”
Never missing a chance to have a dig at somebody, even his friends, Tom said, “Well, you’re just a petted lamb. My grandad says you don’t know what cold is until you’ve stood watch on the bridge of a destroyer during an Arctic winter. He guarded the convoys going to Russia during the war. Royal Navy.”
“You’ve only said that about a million times,” Jess told him. “The story about when his fingers froze to the deck rail and he had to waste his cocoa to get them free. You wouldn’t get me in that pool today either, Alan. I’ll go to the zoo with you and these two can go swimming.”
“That’s only fifteen bob,” Katie quickly calculated.
“Except we don’t have fifteen bob. I bet we haven’t even got half a crown between us,” Alan replied. “Am I right?”
“Not even enough for a cup of tea in Tony’s, probably. Without a shadow of doubt we have a cash flow problem,” Tom said with some finality.
A gloomy silence settled over the sofa, the children briefly lost in their own thoughts and the only sound the continuing racket of raindrops bombarding the roof.
Katie had turned onto her stomach and idly pulled threads out of the sofa’s arm. She held them out so the rain drips could wash them to oblivion while Alan patiently watched her like an indulgent parent. Tom had pulled out his catapult and employed it every so often to ping acorns into the distance (Tom always had acorns somewhere about his person, always). Jess continued to fidget with her shoes and sigh, until the others could sense that Tom’s irritation had drawn near the point where he would declare enough, by saying something cutting to her or, more likely, by throwing her shoes out into the rain.
Perhaps Jess had sensed this too, because she stopped the shoe rubbing and parked her footwear on the shelf behind their heads. Then she made one of her ‘I am about to make an announcement’ throat-clearing sounds. “Come on, you lot. Cheer up. If this is going to be our last summer together, let’s make it one to remember!” she said, while grinning like an overexcited nursery teacher.
“You can’t leave, Jess, we won’t let you,” Alan said, less than convincingly.
Katie rolled onto her back and held her latest thread above her face. She breathed out sharply, to launch it on an arcing path that terminated on her forehead. “Yeh, we won’t let you leave us, Jess. We all belong together.”
Katie’s remark, although undoubtedly sincere, sounded rather like going through the motions. In the sofa, the week before, Jess had laid out the facts of her expected departure later that summer and, from her explanation, it sounded pretty much like a done deal. Her mother, Linda, was thinking seriously about moving to the town of Burnford in Yorkshire ‘to be with Eric’.
Eric Wheeler, a greasy, fifty-something travelling sales rep who frequently visited Medgate on business, had taken a shine to Jess’s mum after she had served him in the Jolly Fryer. “None of your cod and chips for him; he ordered plaice, and onion rings, and curry sauce.”
On his second visit, Eric had persuaded Linda to go out with him on a date, a proper sit down meal with wine and everything, followed by bingo and an hour playing the slot machines on the pier. He had insisted on paying for everything. “A proper gentleman,” Linda announced to her daughter after she had arrived back home. “And very generous. He even let me keep my winnings. I spent them on a bracelet for you.”
When she did meet him, Jess found herself far less dazzled than her mum by Eric the sales rep. Northern grime clung to him like a formless, monochrome skin disease. Years of life on the road had taken their grim toll: sitting behind the wheel of a Morris Oxford for hours on end, battering up and down the A1, staying in cheap, small-town boarding houses with their stodgy English cooking and primitive bathing facilities, none of which was improved by a forty-a-day smoking habit and a liking for bottled brown ale. His greased-back hair and cheap, shiny suits didn’t do anything to make him look any younger than his fifty-four years.
Jess had tried to imagine what he might have looked like as a young man. Tried, and failed. She could picture nothing other than a similar version of what she saw now, but with a smaller paunch and less of a bald patch. If Eric was typical of Burnford folk, Jess wanted no part of meeting any more of them, and the idea of living among them filled her with horror. Although far from perfect, compared to how she imagined life in Burnford would turn out, Medgate was Paradise on Earth.
“Maybe she’ll change her mind,” Alan had offered rather doubtfully, when Jess first broke her news. “I mean she hasn’t said yes yet, has she?”
Tom had joined in. “That’s right, and September's a long way off. A lot could happen before then,” this said in a way that made you half believe that Tom could, if asked nicely, arrange for Eric’s sudden disappearance on a permanent basis. Perhaps he might organise cutting the brake pipes on his Morris Oxford, or for the car to be tied to the back of a departing trawler with Eric still inside. Yes, plenty of time…
“But she’s made up her mind, more or less,” Jess had replied. “The holiday swung it, I think. Two weeks in Spain, full board for both of us, and him, of course. But only after we’ve moved to Burnford.”
“That just sounds so iffy to me,” Katie had replied, and had cuddled up to her friend in a gesture of sisterly support.
By now, the rain had eased down to a fine drizzle, the consequent hush most welcome. The children were still for a moment, each no doubt pondering the parlous state of their finances, until without warning a loud, metallic CLANG made them all jump. A rock had bounced off their iron roof and disappeared into the hedge beyond. The second projectile missed its target but the third repeated the hideous gong-like din of the first. A peal of raucous female cackling followed. It could only be Alan’s older sister, Jade, doubtless accompanied by several of her so-called mates.
With an almighty crash, something heavy landed on the roof, causing it to buckle under the assault. “Oh God,” Alan muttered and held his head. “What’s she want?”
Katie made to reply but her words were lost in a cascade of watery tumult, like someone playing a hose over the roof. More wild laughter followed and the children watched, horrified, as the rain’s gentle dripping became a yellow torrent. As the cataract subsided, the roof shook violently once more and a raincoated figure landed on the path in front of them. Even with her back to them, no one could mistake the identity of their visitor. She bent and hitched up her pants, then swung her head to sweep her dripping hair off her face.
She turned to face them. “Needed that,” she said to herself, straightening her skirt and then looking up to observe the four startled faces. “Surprise!” she yelled, and kicked a plastic flowerpot at Alan.
Jade in full flow was a memorable sight. Though not particularly tall, what she lacked in height she made up for in charisma and, during a somewhat chequered school career, had acquired an enviable reputation for winning playground scraps. Trim, athletic in build, and renowned for her fearless tackling, Jade played hockey for the school team. She possessed the knack of convincing most people of being crazy enough to try just about anything once. Children feared her.
Nevertheless, even if she acted more like a boy than a girl, no one could mistake her for one. If she could have been bothered, she might have been a girl that boys looked at more than once. If she could have been bothered. Too often though, her button nose and full lips were contorted into a scornful sneer, her round, blue eyes narrowed in a squint of reprisal, her blonde bob dishevelled and, like today, hanging in rat’s tails, as if she was making some kind of statement about herself or issuing a challenge to the world at large.
Tom nudged Jess and, still watching Jade, leaned towards her. “Do you think that’s what Alan will look like when he’s fifteen?” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
” Probably, apart from the boobs,” Jess muttered through her frozen grin.
“Got any money, you lot?”
All four shook their heads. It was practically true. “You still owe me ten bob,” Alan reminded her, and immediately regretted it. Casting around her for a handy weapon, she pulled up a Brussels sprout stalk and raised it menacingly, while advancing on the shelter. Alan tipped Katie off his lap and shrank back against the sofa, while Katie rolled out onto the wet grass, accidentally tripping Jade who then fell on top of Alan. Jess and Tom had already scrambled to put their shoes on and passed the prostrate Jade on their way out. Before she could recover, Katie dived past to retrieve her shoes.
“You did that on purpose, Katie Ward!” Jade yelled, but Alan could tell even she didn’t believe that. He fumbled in his inside pocket.
“Here, I’ve got four bob. You can have it, but only if you leave us alone. Deal?”
Perhaps because of her inelegant sprawl, or perhaps because she was on his turf, but Alan had never previously had the nerve to speak to her like that. Thank Christ her friends were still sheltering in the carport and wouldn’t have seen or heard any of this. She sat up and held out her hand. “This is a gift, right? You don’t want it back. And you won’t tell Dad?”
Alan shook his head. “Just take it, and give us peace.”
“Cheers, bruv!” She snatched the coins from his hand and made a point of shouldering Katie as she left. One thing you could say about Jade though – she didn’t bear grudges. Next time they met, she would have forgotten all about it.
“Looks like we’re going to go without our cup of tea in Tony’s this afternoon,” Katie said gloomily when they had settled back into their previous state of repose.
“How do you put up with her?” Tom said.
“I want to like her…” Jess added.
Alan smiled. “Well, that’s a good start I suppose. She can be nice,” he replied doubtfully. “Anyway, they say you have to be a devil before you can become an angel.”
“Is that true?” If it was true, then it was news to Jess. She pondered its implications.
“That’s what my dad would call extortion, protection money,” Tom said. He fired another acorn from his catapult, narrowly missing a wet robin perched in an apple tree.
Jess gave him a look but Alan ignored him. “How would he know? I thought you said he was innocent.”
“What’s extortion?” Katie wondered aloud.
“It’s when crooks demand payment for basically not smashing the place up,” Tom explained. “Anyway, that’s not what he got sent down for. He was caught with some photos, that’s what they said in court. They were of that old bloke they found drowned in the boating lake. It was in all the papers. The police called it blackmail: Dad trying to make this bloke pay up or he’d send the photos to his wife. I’ve never understood why anyone would believe he would want to do that. Not my dad’s style at all. According to Mum, we weren’t even hard up.”
“Shame the bloke killed himself or he might have got away with it,” Katie observed.
“But he didn’t damn well do it!” Tom shouted angrily. “He got framed by the police! They said they’d discovered the photos in his locker at work.”
Katie was shocked. The police? Surely not. Why would they do that? It all sounded a bit far-fetched to her, especially as Len Burns had pleaded guilty at the trial so he only got six years, but she said no more.
“But how did the police know where to look?” Alan asked.
“They said they’d had a tip-off. They never even told my dad who from. The whole thing stank!” Tom had begun to get really worked up.
Jess racked her brains for a diversion, something that would give Tom some time to cool down. It had stopped raining. “C’mon, let’s go for a walk,” she said cheerfully. “In case Jade comes back.”
It seemed unlikely that she would – once she’d bought sweets, she’d be down on the pier with her pals, busy blowing the rest in the penny arcades – but the others agreed and they set off for the Esplanade.
There were few people about. The blustery wind felt mild. It smelt of the sea and to Katie that was the smell of freedom. From this little town, right in front of them, a highway began that led to every corner of the world.
After performing their usual ritual of throwing a few rocks into the sea (it had begun with them watching Alan executing Rule 205, but these days they usually joined in), they settled in one of the rain shelters.
“Could do with a cuppa right about now,” Tom said.
“And toast,” Katie added wistfully. “It’s hopeless. We’re always skint.”
“Except for Alan, apparently,” Jess added tartly.
“Actually, that four bob was to get Jade a birthday present.”
“Yeh, ironic, eh? She’ll be lucky if she gets a card, now.”
“She doesn’t deserve one,” Tom put in. “I just wouldn’t bother if she was my sister.”
“We could have guessed that,” Katie observed drily. “But she is his sister and, as Gran always says, blood is thicker than water.”
“Although not as thick as her gravy,” Alan added, and that got a laugh from everyone. “Jade can be a pain in the backside at times, but you’re right, Jess. She is my sister.”
Jess’s feet were cold. She slipped off her shoes and drew her legs up under her. “And you’re the only one of us who’s got one, or a brother.”
“Yeh. Funny, that,” Katie said quietly. The boys were silent while Jess and Katie continued their ruminations on the family.
Then Alan spoke up. “I remember my mum and dad as being like opposites,” he said. “Mum loud and friends with everyone, always giving away her stuff to the neighbours; and well, you know my dad. He’s a real hoarder, and I take after him I suppose, but Jade is more like Mum. You’ve seen Jade’s room – it’s like a monk’s cell. Dad still has his demob suit from when he left the army, twenty-odd years ago. Nothing was safe when Mum had begun one of her purges. ‘Did the Buddha keep old Christmas cards?’ was one of her sayings, whatever that meant.”
Katie chuckled. “Tom’s dad will be out soon, and then he’ll be the only one of us with two parents.”
“Yeh, but for how long?” Tom added ruefully.
Katie sighed. “We’re an odd lot, and no mistake.”
“I can’t disagree with that,” Alan put in. “But then again, it depends on how you look at things. I mean, does an octopus have arms or legs?”
A tiny black spider that had descended on an invisible thread now dangled just above Alan’s head. Katie poked at it with the end of a grass stem. “And a skint lot. We’re always penniless. It’s definitely not going to be much of a summer if we’re always broke.”
“Then we need a way to make some money,” Jess said. “So, anyone got any bright ideas?” Her tone implied she wasn’t expecting a rush of brilliant suggestions.
“You could all get a paper round, like me,” Tom said.
“Is it good money?”
“Not really. Fifteen bob, and it’s seven days a week. I wouldn’t do it either, but Mum says the only way I’ll get pocket money is if I earn it.”
“What time do you have to get up?”
“About twenty past six.”
Jess shuddered. “I think I’ll pass on that.”
“What about window cleaning?” Katie said. The spider had now decided to crawl down the grass stem towards her hand. “How come small spiders like this one are cute while big ones never are?”
Alan considered this. “Mmm. And where lies the crossover point?” he mused. “At what size do spiders stop being cute and start being horrible?”
“Something else that puzzles me,” Katie said. “Why is it snails are cute but slugs are revolting? Biologically, they’re practically identical.”
“Ah, but you’ve seen that dinky shell and those adorable antennae. Basically, a snail is a tarted-up slug. A bit like Jess when she’s got her war paint on.” That earned Alan a slap on the arm, but from his grin Katie could tell that he hadn’t intended to be mean. He rested a lolly stick he’d found in his pocket on Katie’s finger and the pair watched as the spider transferred its allegiance and began its long trek down the wooden road towards Planet Alan.
“You’d need gear: a ladder and a chamois leather and so on,” Jess said. “Who’d let kids clean their windows anyway?”
“A proper Saturday job is the ideal,” Tom put in, “but you can’t start one until you’re fifteen.”
“Could try crabbing off the pier.”
Tom dismissed that idea. “You’d need a permit from the Town Council, and unless you know the right people you won’t get one.”
“I’ve thought of a way we could make some money,” Jess said brightly.
Tom gave her a sceptical, sideways look. “Is this based on the way the planet actually works, or just one of your wacky ideas?”
Jess deliberated for a moment. “Wacky idea,” she said finally, “but I think it could work. How about cleaning cars. You only need a pail and a leather to do that and, normally, you can cadge a bucket of soapy water off the car owner.”
Tom brightened up. “That sounds like a half-decent idea, Miss Jessica Fortune. I’d try that with you.”
Jess looked pleased. “What about you two? Fancy giving it a try?”
Katie and Alan exchanged frowns; it did not need words to communicate their shared opinion. Silence followed. Then Katie piped up with, “I wonder if there are any jobs going at the zoo? I quite fancy working with animals.”
Tom gave an incredulous whoop. “I quite fancy working with animals,” he mimicked. “Yeh, and so do a million other kids, so good luck with that.”
“There’s nothing to lose by asking, is there?” Alan countered. “I’d go down there with you if you want to try it,” he said to Katie, who looked pleased to have the support. He hated it when Tom was mean to her, even if half the time he probably didn’t even know he was doing it.
It was home time. The four friends walked through the streets in the direction of the Reed Park Estate. Jess and Katie linked arms, chatting and giggling, while the boys walked ahead, talking and pushing one other. Then, without warning, Alan stopped dead and the girls bumped into him. With the others surrounding him he playacted deep thought, stroking his chin and hmm-ing before raising his index finger and fixing his face in a wide-mouthed grin. “OK, so listen to this. It’s something Tom just said that’s given me an idea; it’s a way of making a bit of cash that might actually be fun. What are you two doing next Saturday morning?”