And The Walls Came Tumbling Down
Four sausages, two battered cod, a chop suey roll, six fish cakes and an object that was, potentially, any one of the above but had been there for so long it was impossible to identify with certainty. After several hours under the heat and light of the fryer top shelf, the sausages were starting to resemble Jack's Great Aunty Mabel's fingers: brown, crinkly, oily, and—unlike the sausages, which never gave him anything but heartburn—ever eager to hand over fifty pence to her favourite great nephew. The fact he was her only great nephew was by the by.
She was dead now, and Jack missed her, sort of—not for her fifty-pence pieces, although they were always welcome—but for the simple fact she'd acknowledged he existed. To the rest of his family, and in spite of having somehow made it to adulthood without anyone noticing, he was still the embarrassing little boy best left to his own devices. A bit like that chop suey roll, he mused, his gaze drifting from the grim closeness of reheated food to the view beyond his domain.
Today, as always, the cliffs were grey and disgusting, brazen-faced against the driving rain, which hadn't stopped for the better part of a week. Other than the occasional small group of middle-aged hikers, in full waterproofs, this part of the coast was deserted, making every day in the tatty little fish and chip shop a lonely re-run of the previous. If anyone ever had the misfortune to be hungry enough to venture inside, all they found was an array of dried-up objects huddled together behind the glass. They always bought something out of obligation, although chances were the bin around the corner was overflowing with discarded, indigestible, English fried 'delicacies'.
Jack squinted at the dreary outside world, not an easy feat when the inside of the window was covered in condensation that revealed ancient tiny handprints, smiley faces and backwards 'hellos', the outside scarred with years of limescale, bar the scant diagonal relief of today's fresh downpour. It was all rather miserable and boring. True, he could have taken a scouring pad to that limescale, today or any other day, really, because at this time of year, the weather was entirely predictable. Rain and strong gusts, followed by more rain and moderate gusts, possibility of gales overnight, blah, blah, blah.
So, yes, he could give the glass a good scrub and get himself drenched in the process, or he could sit and watch the drips negotiate their way through the chalky maze to the immense puddle below.
Or I could just leave.
The thought was so startling, Jack jumped as if someone had shouted 'Boo!' directly into his ear. Mind-blowing conclusions didn't generally happen upon him out of the blue like that, or on anyone else, he envisaged. The realisation usually dawned gradually, preceded by hours, days or more of pondering over one's options, the possibilities and their outcomes. For Jack, who was somewhat prone to indecision, or—in the unlikely event he did make up his mind—following his inevitably lousy gut instincts, the immediacy of the solution was unnerving.
He hated his job, more so in the summer than during these 'low-season' months, although the only way to tell the summer from the rest of the year was more people in anoraks and more daylight, allegedly. Day after day, weeks to months to three years, and in all that time, and with all his grumbling—to himself, because there was no-one else—he hadn't given a single thought to resigning.
Picking up the stainless steel chip scoop, he idly scraped at splashes of batter congealed on the counter. Stupid idea. Resign? Not much possibility of that. He was no use to anyone else, and even if he was, there were no jobs, or, at least, the other jobs involved guiding wet tourists through the caves or doing what he was doing now—serving refried, rubbery chips—but somewhere else. Or, if he fancied a change, he could serve tea and scones up in the café by the caves.
No, the whole notion of 'just leaving' was scuppered by the reality that there was nowhere else to go. Even Hannah—his sister—had been caught in the small-town trap, and she was much smarter than him, and more hardworking. That's what their teachers had said. Their parents agreed. As tiny twins, dressed in coordinating outfits, and all through school, their mother had been quick to point out how advanced Hannah's reading was compared to his, how sporty she was, unlike him, and how popular she was and he wasn't. But what could he expect if he chose to stay in and play computer games? And it was a choice. No point, after all, going out and getting wet when he could escape to the somewhat drier, virtual world of online gaming.
He supposed being popular had its merits, but as his sister demonstrated more adequately than he could ever have done, it also has some major pitfalls. Specifically, becoming a single, teenaged mother. All right, nineteen was only just a teenager and not in the true sense of how teens treated their parents and everyone else at, say, fourteen. He recalled that age with horrifying clarity, when he'd hated Hannah almost as much as he'd hated his parents, because she was the shining light, a beacon of all that a child should be, whilst he was the skulking, spotty son who refused to leave his bedroom unless he had to for school or a meal undertaken in sullen silence whilst she babbled away about all the super-great things she'd achieved that day. Boring showing off because she knew how much he hated it.
Seven years later, there he was, full-time fish-and-chip-shop assistant in the least frequented fish and chip shop on the east coast, and there she was, on the other side of town with her scrawny offspring, who looked just like he did when he was that age. Whoop-de-do. He could see them huddled in their cosy little council house watching daytime TV, toddler toys everywhere, the washing machine running full pelt… If that was success, then maybe he wasn't so badly off after all, even if it was only late afternoon with nothing but more of the same until bedtime. Of course, he could have gone to college—he still could now—and studied something to do with science. Or geography. He'd always liked geography. Actually, that wasn't totally true. He'd disliked it less than everything else, but he was terrible at it.
A gust of bitter salty air blasted Jack out of his reverie, his heart still thumping as he watched the trespasser fight to close the door against the battling wind and rain. After a struggle that seemed to last for at least a minute, the gale returned to whistling past the front of the shop, and the various bits of sea grass, leaves and other rubbish settled to the floor. The man who had brought them in dragged his long hair out of his face, tucked it back under his giant floppy-rimmed hat and smoothed down the collars on his raincoat. He nodded a greeting at Jack and smiled warmly. Jack's mouth fell open, his jaw hanging like it had unhinged itself.
"Tremendous weather on this part of the coast." The man indicated behind him with a large swooping gesture, the sheer length of his arm and the size of his hand spanning half the front window. Jack nodded gormlessly. The man paused for a moment before continuing. "These exposed peninsulas make for remarkable patterns in precipitation. Splendid. Splendid, I say."
Jack was at an utter loss for words. It wasn't as if he was unfamiliar with making small talk with total strangers. His job, day in, day out, required him to serve people whom he would never see again, and the occasional bout of weather-based conversation was a welcome change from the constant drone of the fryers and fluorescent lighting. However, the majority of customers tended to be somewhat less verbose than his present visitor, and definitely lacking in enthusiasm for remarkable patterns in precipitation—wind and rain, strong wind and rain, sometimes it got dark. What was so remarkable about that?
It wasn't just the absurdity of the man's proclamations. Usual attire for those who visited the area involved waterproof jackets in two varieties: tasteful earthy greens, beiges and navy blues, or outlandish bright orange, like non-permeable markers of social class. First, there were the educated explorers, and then came the tourists, who generally left wishing they hadn't arrived. Caves were interesting enough, but once they'd seen them, there was little else to do for the remaining six days of their holiday.
This man, in his camel-coloured raincoat and black felt hat, was so incredibly out of place that Jack was still staring at him and he at Jack, and it had been so for several minutes.
"You want to ask me a question," the man stated solemnly.
"I can see by your expression that you are curious about my presence."
"I am a little out of place, yes?"
"Well, yes, now you mention it. You don't look like—"
"A tourist? No, I suppose not, though that is precisely what I am. Perhaps not your conventional tourist, I grant you, but a tourist, nonetheless."
The man's voice was deep and booming yet warm and somehow comforting. It was the sort of voice that told you what to do, whilst simultaneously reassuring you that everything would be all right, and given the choice, you'd have done whatever it was anyway—a cross between an old-fashioned headmaster and Santa Claus, but without the girth and with a somewhat less garish outfit.
"I must confess," the man prevailed, undaunted by Jack's—by now he was quite sure—rude staring, "that despite my enthusiasm for the local climate, I entered your premises on a false pretext, in that I do not require food. However, I will purchase one of those—" an astonishingly long index finger indicated towards the food on the fryer shelf "—if it will satisfy your hospitality requirements."
Jack remained motionless as he rewound and replayed the man's request.
"You want a sausage?"
"Right. Good." Jack was on familiar ground now. He picked up the tongs and selected his target before cautiously opening the sliding door at the back of the heated cabinet. He sometimes got an uneasy feeling that the food items had a life of their own and would flee the minute he took his eyes off them. Certainly, no-one would ever believe they were inanimate if they saw the battle he fought to capture just one sausage, lift the writhing beast from its place amongst its brethren and wrestle it into the greaseproof paper in his other hand.
"Would you like anything else?" he asked, seemingly of the sausage. If he looked at his customer, he'd only end up staring again.
"No. That will suffice, thank you. I will take a seat by the window whilst I eat."
Jack nodded his understanding, placed the sausage in a polystyrene tray and placed the tray on the counter, although those arms could have reached over and taken it from where it was, no trouble at all.
The man paid and took his purchase away to the central table in front of the window, blotting out half the daylight, such as it was. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall, seven with the hat. Perched on the chair that was tiny by comparison, with his legs bent almost double under the table, he looked like a character from Alice in Wonderland.
Jack absently wiped the counter and watched as the man extracted a small hardback book from inside his coat and placed it on the table next to the tray. Wrapping the sausage in the single sheet of greaseproof paper, he lifted it towards his mouth and then froze, almost as if someone had pressed pause on a recording. He slowly turned his head and looked Jack right in the eye.
"Do you perchance sell hot beverages? A mug of tea?"
"We do…perchance…" Jack grabbed a mug from under the counter, having correctly interpreted this as a request. He wasn't sure how long ago he had made the pot of tea. In this place, time had no meaning, with each hour of each day blurring into the next. But the tea was still hot and smelled reasonably fresh, so he filled the mug and took it over to the table.
"Many thanks." The man reached into his pocket and retrieved a handful of small change, or it would have been a handful for anyone else. The open palm was almost as big as the table, and Jack felt uncomfortable fishing the correct money out of it, as if he were too small and irrelevant to do so. He returned to the safety of his counter with the accompaniment of a slurp and a contented sigh.
"An excellent brew, young man."
Jack nodded in thanks for the compliment and perched on the high stool next to the fryer. He'd been reading a science fiction novel for quite some time—months, possibly years—and picked it up, flicking through the pages, looking for the folded corner. He'd flicked all the way through to the front cover before he remembered he'd finished it already and exchanged the book for the newspaper, open at the crossword page. He was fairly certain no other person read as many awful sci-fi novels as he did—was it any wonder he couldn't recall the plot of any of them?—or went through the paper as thoroughly, but for seven of the eight hours he worked, there was nothing else to do. And still he'd never managed to complete the crossword.
He pretended he was engrossed in it, because the prospect of conversation made him nervous. He had no idea why. The stranger seemed amiable, if a little out of the ordinary, and he'd had the decency to admit he'd only come in from the weather. Had he tried to claim otherwise, his look of displeasure as he gnawed his way through the greasy, chewy sausage would have betrayed him.
Jack turned his attention back to the newspaper. It was supposedly the 'quick crossword', and yet he could make it last for most of the afternoon and evening, rarely solving more than half of the clues. On a positive note, it gave him a means to fill half an hour or so of tomorrow, when he checked his previous day's performance against the solutions.
Sometimes he did better, with only one or two spaces left, although on occasion, he'd been so flummoxed he'd considered asking his scarce customers what they thought the answer might be, but not this time. He had a feeling this man would be able to fill in all the gaps, more than likely without even needing to know the clues.
Through some kind of weird telepathy, the man chose that specific moment to clear his throat, and Jack looked up expectantly. Nothing. He was busy sipping his tea and reading his book. It was all in Jack's imagination.
Soon after, as it started to go dark, the man put his book back in his pocket and returned his mug to the counter.
"Thank you for your first-rate service," he said appreciatively, putting his hat on and dipping the brim in Jack's direction before turning on his heel and heading for the door with no obvious intention of awaiting a response.
"No worries," Jack called out. The door flew open, almost hitting the wall behind, and then swung to a resistant close again, once more leaving the debris to settle on the lino flooring, and Jack to his crossword, dried-up cod and sausages. At least it was one less to throw away, now there were only—
"Four? Hang on a minute."
Jack blinked a few times and counted again. "One, two, three—definitely four."
He picked up the mug that the man had left on the counter. It was still warm to the touch and yet it was dry inside. He glanced across to the table and chair. They looked the same as they had before…but for one small detail.
"Thought so." He grinned to himself out of relief and amusement at his own silliness. There was still the polystyrene tray and the scrunched-up paper that had held the sausage. He'd clearly miscounted before, and of course the cup would be dry, because it was warm enough for any residual tea to evaporate. Nothing to see here, he assured himself, edging around the counter and towards the table by the window, where his sole customer of the afternoon had sat a moment before.
Except he didn't reach the table.
It started with a rumbling, deep and booming like thunder, moving closer, ever more rapid, from the cliff top and downwards, towards the sea, each boulder exploding into hundreds of smaller ones as it collided with its cousins below, a vast mound of blinding white against the grey backdrop of sea and stones and the ship graveyard beyond. Jack was helpless to do anything other than watch as what seemed like half the cliff face fell several hundred feet to Earth and a boulder the size of a cottage bounced towards him.
Buy And The Walls Came Tumbling Down