By the time we’d realised that there weren’t any glasses in the caravan, we were already pretty cut. As explained in the rental email, we found the keys under the garden statue of the stone frog, and had spent the first, hurried half hour dragging the bags in from the car and lining our stomachs, before we started on the wine. This decision had been one of convenience, rather than particular taste, as it had been easier to locate the green bottles, clanking in the boot, than the vodka, which had been pilfered from Fran’s older brother, stuffed in a pillowcase, and hidden in the depths of her suitcase.
We hadn’t noticed the absence of glasses, because the protocol with wine was to drink straight from the bottle. We’d seen that photo of Rod Stewart and David Bowie doing the same thing and never looked back, but the spirits would need something for mixing. We weren’t pissed enough to take it neat. Not yet. We were after a vessel.
After a bit of a scout around our very limited surroundings, and a brief but considerate glance at the ashtray, the cracked sugar bowl, and the dusty ceramic vase by the sink, we were ready to concede, when our eyes settled on the empty Pot Noodles.
She’d insisted her father meet her outside in the car park, because he’d make a big deal of it, and she didn’t want the others to see. She knew, before it happened, how it would go.
He’d be stood up. He’d have arrived too early. He’d be waiting, in the same make of tan suede loafers he’d worn every weekend since she could remember, arms outstretched, pinning a wobbling smile to his face. He’d sob into her hair. He’d take big, heaving breaths of relief and there would be surging emotion that he himself probably wouldn’t understand. His cheeks would be wet and, because it was a Sunday, he wouldn’t have shaved, so his beard would scrape against her face. She dreaded the performance of it, and felt ashamed to dread such love.
As it turned out, because she was still a hair’s breadth off eighteen, they wouldn’t release her without the presence of a nominated guardian, so he met her in the reception. He needed to sign for her, like a package – a fragile one he’d strap into the front seat of the Volvo, and hold fast as he turned sharp corners.
The sun shone, though the day was far from warm. As she’d sat, waiting for him, the first few flakes of snow had fallen. It had seemed strange to see it happen, in the sunlight, and they had come down so slowly that, at first, she hadn’t been sure it was snow at all, so fragile was the offering that it looked to her more like debris. Ash. Like the aftermath of some great fire.
Sorry I’m late. The fucking dog’s been driving me mental. She’s in heat.
He’d been scowling into the cold air, as she’d watched him round the corner past the chemist, and the lines on his forehead had not yet settled back into his face. She thought he looked tired and irritable, and the possibility of being punished by one of his foul moods had spurred in her a desire to keep the walk brief, or to avoid it altogether. Disappointment hit her in the stomach, and she began thinking of an out. Fake a phone call. Feign a limp. But it wasn’t long before he was smirking at her, dancing on the spot to keep warm, and she found herself smirking back. Once again, the open morning seemed to roll out before them, like a bolt of gold fabric.
There was something queer about his mouth, too. Not to say that I didn’t like it, but then I always liked a few flaws in a fella. I think I got it from my old mum – she was always after a bastard so I grew up around them, and look what that lead to. Attracted to what I was repelled by. I don’t think that makes sense, does it, but it makes the job easier. I once tricked a fella from Lincoln with warts on his hands. He called it a condition; I called us a cab. Is this being recorded?
Didn’t one of you say I could have a Coke? No, no one brought me one. Hang on, let me get my lighter out. Now, where was I? Yeah, so there was that thing about his mouth, the way he had this habit, yeah, of snaking his tongue out – like this – when he wasn’t talking, not thinking like. Couldn’t stop looking. And he was older. White male and fifty, did you say? 5 foot 8? Sounds about right. Quite a bit older, then, if I’m honest. Didn’t mind. Daddy issues they call that, don’t they? I bet you lot do. Well, answer me this then. How can I have daddy issues if I ain’t got a daddy? I don’t blame you for thinking it. See it all the time, not just with people in my line of work, I bet. Shit goes on at home, and next thing you know you’re picking up some lass for trying to shackle a midlife crisis with a bad dye job and a Jag – trainers too young for them, and all that. You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes. They say that too, don’t they? Do you like mine? Heel’s coming off this one a bit. Is that Coke still coming?
Not that I was trying to shackle anyone anyway. That’s not how it works in my line. This isn’t the movies. He wasn’t bad to look at, though. He wasn’t the sort you’d take pity on at all, not like some of the others, I can tell you. A fella who thinks he’s ugly and is right (they’re the best for it, I find) is a far cry from one who doesn’t. It’s like they aren’t trying to trick you into thinking you might like it. Fucking Richard Gere. God, they’re the worst. Nah, he wasn’t one of them. He knew what he was about. It’s partly why I remember him. Why does any of this matter? I’ve not seen him since, and that was months back.
Yes please, 2 sugars. No, I still want the Coke, and all, thank you. He’s nice. He asks polite. Not like the rest of you lot. Hey, did I tell you once I got my head slammed over a coffee table by one of you, just because I happened to be working a party at a house in… Yeah, that’s the one. Drug dealer, the news said. Well, how was I to know?
Anyway, this fella. How comes I remember him? He wasn’t like the others. Usually a smirk and a shandy is all it takes before they’re putty in your hands, grateful for ‘owt, but this one took some doing. I remember he was a little rbloke with little hands too, but broad like a brickie’s, and a neat dresser. I had a banging little number on that night myself. I did. Not too much because you don’t want to make it obvious, do you; got to make them think they’ve pulled you, even when they know they haven’t. I’d winked at him across the bar, and he smiled but then turned back to his drink. It took the wind out of me! I tried again, moving closer, and pulled the forgot my purse one on him, and I could tell he saw straight through it, but he bought my drink anyway. Bacardi Coke, double – ‘cause why not?
His voice was funny too. Slow talker. Kept each word in his mouth a bit too long, like he was eating a sweet, but it wasn’t daft. I asked him what he did for a living – they always like that, because they always have an answer for it, even if it ain’t true. It’s like they’re grateful for the talking point. I can’t remember what he said he did in the day, but reckoned himself a bit of a writer by night. Started on about the stories he had to tell. Can you imagine it? There’s me, eyeing up the nearest toilet to save a trip back to the Travelodge, and he’s on to me about writers. He said it’s all the little things. The little things is poetry. Think he lost me, to be honest. Then he asked me the same question back, but I said I was just interested in getting to know him a little better, and would he like to nick off somewhere for a bit, to read me some of his work. I called him Mr Shakespeare then, and he laughed.
I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong. He knew. He must have done, they all do. Few drinks later and there we were, back at the room. We chatted at first. He tried to play some music on his phone but I wanted to get down to it and he didn’t stop me. I’ll spare you the details. Is that other one coming back in? He looks like a right go-er.
Yeah, we did. Can I leave yet? I’ve said everything I know and I’m expected back out on the strip tonight. Oh, I don’t know. Nothing too much, just let me jabber on. You know something. I don’t think too much when it’s happening. I zone out. I don’t mean I’m all silent – I mean, we’ve all got our go-to phrases. Yeah. Like that. Do it. Some like you to scream the place down. Others want you to shut your mouth. You can usually guess it right by looking, if you care, but not that time. I couldn’t figure him. Forgot myself. Don’t get me wrong, the earth didn’t move, but something about it caught me off guard.
Anyway, to answer your question, I know he was there all night because so was I. I knew I shouldn’t have, because I’d not half get a thrashing the next day. I left as soon as it was light enough for me to see where I’d chucked my clothes. Took the money straight out of his wallet, while he was still asleep. Part of me thinking he hadn’t quite clocked the situation, and something about that I liked.
It’s funny what you remember when you really think about it. It was a strange old night. He just smiled and listened. Asked me if Candy was my real name. I don’t know why, because I usually wouldn’t, but I just told him. Expect you can see I’m a talker. Then, get this, right. He turned to me and said that my name means gift, and I laughed. Said he’d seen it on a bookmark one time – the kind with the different names on. I mean, you’d have laughed too. All the little things is poetry, he said.
Welcome to the city of soft-focus. Blink once and miss nothing. The brick-and-slate vista forms a dingy skirting board below the rising fog. Can you taste it yet? Wait for it, it’s coming – and once the acrid twang of fag ash and river sludge begins to probe the meaty paunches of your mouth, you’ll know you’re here. I watch it smudge past me, from outside the taxi window. I wait for the sign, as if I need reminding. As if this place needs announcing. I can be nowhere else.
The taxi man is chewing a biro. He is an old hand, but he’s not actually as old as all that. Perhaps he’s fifty – fifty-five tops. Some of his back teeth are missing, and his fox-like grin pulls far towards his ears. He begins his patter. He asks me if I’m here for the holidays, his head cocked up towards the mirror. I meet him. I start to explain that I don’t live here anymore: that I’m here to see my brother. Asks me if I’m at yooni, if I like what I’m studying, and if I miss home. I say aye so many times it starts to sound like eye, and I wonder if I’m having a stroke. I ask him if he lives local. Oh yes, he nods. All me life.
Hey listen, here’s one for you: what do women and hurricanes have in common? They both start off a breeze, but then they destroy everything you have! Always liked that one, but can never remember where I heard it… Jim, maybe, or Andrew in Marine Forecasting? Or perhaps just a stranger on the bus, which is equally plausible because – and I’ve always liked this – weather has a place in everyone’s daily lives, not just ours down at the Met Office. You hear it come up in all sorts of conversation. In fact, just the other week, an architect friend of mine met the Queen at the opening of some war memorial, and you’ll never guess what she said to him. One’s hair is being drizzled on. That tickled me pink.
Of course, in my line of work we’re not so focused on your everyday downpour. In Paleotempestology – that’s the hurricane business – you’ve all sorts of meteorological implications to consider, not least of all the official naming of storms. I bet you never thought about how they do that, did you? Well, someone’s got to. I often think back on my career and wonder what prompted me to classify them as I did. How I managed to choose names to summarise each cyclonic thrill. Of course, I realise now that the inspiration was clear all along.
My first was Lisa. Gale force two, if memory serves. Winds of about nine kilometres per hour, fingernails bitten down, and sparkly polish on the nibs, short wavelets with no breaks. Some airborne spray. To be honest, tame, and pretty unremarkable, but there’s a first for everything, isn’t there. It was middle school, after all. Followed swiftly by Monica. Gale force three – a definite let down, with very few scattered whitecaps. Freckled, too. Some experts in the field had said she’d go anywhere, do anything, but no more than a slight draught and flutter down by the football fields and it was over.
Anyway, Naomi came after. Eight, and what an eightshe was. Dark, with a stare that smothered, east-coast-American, beachy-type. Winds of about seventy kilometres per hour, that’s-more-like-it, well-marked streaks of foam along the coastline, filled out, college. Whirlwind romance. Came to nothing with surprisingly little destruction, but after all when you really looked her in the eye there was nothing there.
Olive next, gale force five – six at a push – heavy-set, natural, fairly typical for that time. Winds of around thirty-eight kilometres per hour. Bit scattered, but punctual – arrived and left without a fuss. Some airborne spray, and occasional whistling. Classic, but not common. Low expectations, but could actually move you, in the midst of it all.
Paula surprised us all, predicted a four, and turned out a seven. Sea heaped up high, moderate wave breaks and considerable tree movement. Brisk, free-spirited, adventurous, gusts from all angles, refreshing fifty-five kilometre per hour winds, but died down slowly, only to be caught blowing in new terrain, if you catch my drift.
Then all too suddenly was Rita with was – what, in hindsight, I now see – ten written all over her. Redhead, with a mind of her own; one hundred kilometres per hour tempest winds, erratic, dizzying with very high waves and overhanging crests, resulting in reduced visibility. One way and then the other, knocked your socks off, uprooted you, blew you away. Considerable damage left in her wake. Remembered often.
And as for today, the reading is meagre – light precipitation with mild winds, of no real consequence to anyone not planning to fire up a barbecue, wear a floaty dress, or paint fences. Mild inconvenience, but even so, it unites us in that same way. It’s an opening, a crutch, a fall back. The weather is the Godfather of small talk: always there when you need a favour, but with a price to pay. And yes, today’s is pretty uneventful, but that’s the thing about weather – it changes. Tomorrow will be different – it will bring something new. Tomorrow could bring Sarah, or Sandra, or even Sunshine. Tomorrow could ruin plans, or perhaps make them. It could change it all. But, then again, in this game, who knows – it could well be a lot of hot air.
When she said it, the air left. It was as though the exact words she’d spoken had rung something out from inside his head. The grey matter of his brain, rinsed, like an old dishcloth. He couldn’t believe it, what she had said.
Then everything felt brittle. Soundless. He wondered momentarily if, in some alternate universe, he was living through one of those scenes from the movies he loved: the ones set in outer space; the kind he’d watch over and over and over, where the big red button gets pressed, mistakenly, opening a hatch that vacuums out the crew into the gaping maw of space, and then maybe they’re okay, but maybe they’re dead. He wondered which he’d be, but – mainly – he just couldn’t believe what she’d said.
For a bit, the only sound he could hear was the sonar sound of his heart from inside his ear: the sonorous thud of each beat, landing like a dull missile, and it wasn’t until he looked up and around him that he knew that nothing had happened – no explosions, no rapture, no dread. For the first time since she’d uttered the words, he looked up at her. He just couldn’t believe it, what she’d said.
Around them, the wait staff still continued to serve, bussing from table to table. Cacophony. Nearby patrons scraped forks over plates, glasses clinked on teeth, chair legs squealed and dragged. He saw the mouths of others open and close – even hers, so round and so red – but no sound came, and he couldn’t believe what she’d said.
His brain simply refused, inflating defensively inside his skull like a pufferfish, blocking all access to his consciousness, extensively, so that even the smallest wisp of her voice would not be able to sneak its way inside. Code red. His body simply refused it all, materially: he couldn’t believe what she’d said.
He felt swollen, all of a sudden – raw – like the blisters he’d get at football when he was still a kid. The kind his dad would burst with a hot needle, before wrapping his feet. He recalled his father’s explanation for them: nature’s airbags, he’d say. They pop up to protect what’s beneath. Good lad. When he’d finished, he’d always touched his head. He thought about him now: how long he’d been dead. He wondered how he’d have explained the words that she’d said.
And now here he was, but older – the injury unfamiliar, and not the same pain, but the body’s defence kicking in, all the same. It had been a long time since he’d stumbled or bled, but he felt like death, after what she had said.
Gunther did not remember much about his death. In fact, the moment had passed somewhat uneventfully and, had it not been for the audience’s few gasps of surprise and an ill-timed giggle, he might have thought he’d dreamt it up altogether.
Emily had been sat in the second row, slightly left of centre stage – not that he’d been able to see his wife during much of the performance itself. The stage lamps had masked the audience from the players with a brilliantly intense void of white light. He had felt the glow draw conspicuous beads of sweat to his forehead almost the instant he had taken his first steps on stage, like the rapid onset of fever. It had felt like being in the presence of a dying star.
Alex watched a large brown fly circle the sticky perimeter of his glass, and wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. The heat was stifling, and his focus had long since shifted from his parents’ conversation to the distant, silver spatter of the municipal fountain on the far side of the smouldering plaza. He imagined himself beneath its aquamarine deluge – feeling the cool water sweep into his armpits, and slick down, across the backs of his knees. He fancied he could smell the scent of chlorine and pennies from where he was sat, but the fantasy soon fell apart in the heat of the airless day.
He turned his attention back to his parents. His father was three minutes into one of his recapitulated monologues on how the game had all changed since the 1970s, and how Alex’s generation couldn’t possibly hope to recreate such a prodigious era. From the bits and pieces that he had tuned into, Alex knew that his father had already covered the problems with digital refereeing, and obscene player pay packets – “It just beggars belief, son.” – and would soon circle back to good old-fashioned love of the game.