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The Sea View Cafe

by

Michael Graeme







~ Smashwords Edition ~

~ January 2018 ~





Published by:

Michael Graeme on Smashwords



Copyright © 2018 by Michael Graeme

This version fully revised for Smashwords January 2018

Copyright Notice

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.



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Chapter One


Finn was a boy when he'd last seen Carrickbar. That would have been in the early'70s. The exact year was hazy now but what he did remember was the perfect crayon blue of sea and sky, and a sunlight painting everything in the golden tones of an eternally idealised past.


Of course winter was not the best time to be seeing the place again. Winter did not glaze over the buckled pavements, nor the cracks in white render into which the briny blackness seeped like an infection. It did not disguise at all the harshness and the unforgiving nature of life at the edge. Indeed it was to him, that afternoon, after a five hour drive, and through the murky lens of his road weariness, a cold, grey place, frozen as his heart, pale and grey as the sea before him, not the hopeful blue of boyhood dreams any more, but a cold infinity, just one more thing reflective of the lack of compassion in the world. It was a thing, he thought, that seemed to laugh at the very idea of love.


The house he'd come to rent was on Elm Street - one of the little side roads snaking up the hill. He'd not bothered to seek it out yet, and would not be doing so unless his mood improved in the next half hour. Instead he'd pulled in here by the promenade where he remembered being raised upon his father's shoulders on the evening of the last day of their holiday.


"We'll come again, Finn, eh boy? We'll come again next year?"


Finn could still hear the enthusiasm in his father's voice, something durable, heroic even, and the firm feel of those shoulders beneath him, and the certainty the man would not let him fall.


"They say you can see all the way to Ireland from here. Well, do you see it, boy?"


And Finn replied that he could see it, and that they must come again.


But they did not come; his father was gone by winter, taken by a sickness that was already eating him hollow even as Finn sat tall upon his shoulders. And it was just a myth you could see all the way to Ireland. Words were only words, and mostly empty, and on a day like this, you could see no distance at all.


So, the house would be up there then, one of the drunken little places clinging to the hill, a former fisherman's hovel, its anonymity being the only redeeming feature, and the only thing of value to Finn now. It was a crack in the world to crawl into, a long, long way from anything that was hurting him, a long way too from those who might know him as a coward.


The rent was suspiciously cheap, and he had an option to buy if he chose to stay beyond the winter, which he doubted. He was lucky, the agent had said; such places rarely came up, and when they did they went at once for holiday homes, only the market was depressed just now, like just about everything else. But Finn did not count this as luck, more a queer working out of the fate that had drawn him back to relive this moment from childhood, that last summer evening on the promenade at Carrickbar, the summer before his father died, and Finn's innocence with it.


It had been a more prosperous place in those days. There had been caravans on the hill, and boarding houses in the backstreets, and even the King James, seedy now, had boasted rooms for the middle classes. There had been sand castles too, down upon the beach, little flags a fluttering, and clean nuclear families with their 2.1 children in quaint summer holiday attire. But now there ran only the paint peeled line of struggling businesses - the King James Inn still in the centre, but offering no welcome now beyond warm beer and sticky carpets, no en-suite home from home, only a gaggle of hollow eyed men leaning on the doorposts, gawping over pint pots. Then there was Salty Sams, the tourist junk emporium next door, and looking lonely out of season, insanely optimistic, still with its sun bleached kites and Frisbees in the window that looked like they might even date back as far as Finn's own summer here. Then there was Mackintyres the newsagents, and up the hill a way there was the Royal Central Bank - ATM not functioning - and the Sea View Cafe, its plastic chairs and tables thrown by the wind in a heap against the wall. And at the other end of the promenade there was Mulligans, the near ruin of a garage where they sold the most expensive petrol in England.


Sure, Carrickbar in winter looked less like a bulwark against the tide, and more something ruinous and unwholesome, washed up after storms.


He leaned back against the car and looked out at the sea, out into that infinite blankness. It spoke of hopelessness, of a lonely drowning, but he was not dead yet, so what was he to do with it? It was a question he'd been asking now since the beginning. He supposed there must be an answer if only because he was still capable of asking the question. And maybe there was no answer, just this last small gasp of life to be lived alone somehow, at least until the money ran out.


And then what?


The Sea View Cafe looked like it was open, and a half-way decent place. He'd take coffee there, see if things felt any better on the other side of it. Sure, if Carrickbar, welcomed him in the next half hour, he'd stay. And if it didn't? Well, he'd admit his failure, go home and be exposed for the coward that he was.




Chapter Two


Hermione sees the car draw in on the promenade. It's either lost or it's some sort of official snooping about, or maybe it's to do with the properties springing up for sale like a rash all over town. Sure, that'll be it - an estate agent most likely. Strangers didn't often make their way to Carrickbar these days, except by satnav error, and the only things selling now are its cracked and crumbling properties.


From her vantage point behind the counter of the Sea View Cafe, she can make out much of the town and the promenade, and the sea of course. And it's a cold sea sort of day, the sort of day when the wind makes a mountain of the plastic chairs and tables on the front deck. They were useless things, and she would dispense with them in winter time but for the unfortunate fact she still has customers who risk their lungs with fags, and the only place for them, poor souls, even in December, is outside.


She sees the man stepping out and leaning on his car, gazing at the sea like he's remembering something, and though he's still a way off, she fancies he does not look like an official, even in his office pants and shirt and tie. It's not that Hermione has anything to worry about on that score; her hygiene certificates are in order, as are her taxes. It's just that Carrickbar in winter is the same old story, and rarely a ripple of novelty washes ashore. But here's something different; she can feel it in her bones. It's like the letter she's waited for every morning of her life, the one that would change things:


'Dear Miss Watts, you have won a million pounds.'


Or:


'Dear Miss Watts, you've never heard of me but I have been your admirer now for many years and would like to marry you. Please meet me with your answer. I will be at the,...'


Still the dream of Romance, Minnie?


Well okay, maybe not, so how about this instead: 'Here I am, the lover you've been waiting for. Come fuck me awake. Jolt me from this numbness.'


She scolds herself, but gently. The only single men around here are the old and the widowed, a pension for their income. The rest have gone away for proper work - that being measured as anything paying even a fraction above minimum wage. There's Squinty Mulligan of course, down at the garage, his overalls smelling of old oil and fart and sweat and his eyes always drawn to her tits when he comes in. She couldn't imagine anyone wanting the likes of him, plus he must be the downhill side of Fifty. Even scrubbed up and smelling sweet, and with a whole personality transplant, Squinty still wouldn't be much of a catch.


'And you are thirty eight, Minnie.'


'Don't remind me.'


'Certainly too old to be dressing as you do.'


'Leave it, now.'


'No wonder business is so slow, you looking like that, and an oily old pervert the only man half way interested. Fashion designer indeed! What queer ideas they fed you with at school. And here you are now serving teas and frying sausages and warming pies.'


'Well, it may not be much, Mum, and not exactly what I imagined for myself, but I own this business, thank you.'


He's very still, the stranger. Unusual that. She's noticed how men like to fidget, that if you want to see casual stillness in a human being you'll find it only in a woman. It's striking, and not a little sinister. Also, he's bearded, and she's never liked bearded men. It's like covering up the goods and expecting you to buy them unseen until it's too late, and then that bearded lover you've settled on turns out to be the ugliest man alive.


And she's not that desperate.


'Be serious, Minny.' Her mother talking, again.


'Keep your feet on the ground, girl, or you'll be floating away. Fashion indeed!'


The stranger is making a move, heading along the promenade, hands in pockets, head down. There's something in the way he moves, like he's holding himself tight, bracing himself for a blow that never comes. It gives him a hunted look, as if he's in hiding from something. Is that his story perhaps?


'Like to hide him in your bed, Minnie, beard and all?'


'Shut up, I told you. I'm not that sort of girl. Well, not any more I'm not.'


The days of bad boyfriends are long gone. Indeed the days of any kind of friend, girl or boy, it seems, are gone.


Hermione is thinking it's either the cash machine he's wanting, up at the bank, in which case he'll be disappointed, or it's the café and a brew to warm his bones on this most bitterly cold of days. She wagers on the bank, speculates he might call in on the way back if she looks clean and tidy and not too desperate. She checks her face in the mirrored chrome of the new coffee machine, the machine she's only just mastered and is yet to use in anger. For good measure, she smoothes her blouse, tugs it down so it settles a little more tightly over her bosom, smoothes her skirt over her hips, gives a little shimmy.


'Sure, what's not to die for, Minny?'


The door opens to the tinkle of the chimes and in walks,... Squinty Mulligan for his pies, and an eyeful of her tits.


Sigh.


She gives him what she hopes he'll take as a dangerous flash of her eyes, but it's never cautioned him before - he seems actually to like it, which is worrying. He's early today, business obviously slack. Squinty Mulligan; if anyone's capable of making her let go of her slim hanging on here, it'll be him.


"Cuppa tea," he says, then eases himself onto the barstool.


There's something in his tone today, a bit glum, she's thinking. He's hurting somewhere, which isn't like him - not like him to show it anyway, but Hermione's good at sniffing out the hurt in others, if only so she can better learn how to hide it in herself. It's his thumb. He's wrapped it in a piece of filthy tissue through which she observes a spreading blot of blood. Were it anyone else, his thumb would be up like a balloon with infection tomorrow, but most likely Squinty will survive unscathed, dirt being his natural environment.


"All right, John? What you been doin' there then?"


"Banged the fuckin' thing wiv' a 'hammer."


"Ah. Must hurt."


"Aye. Does a bit. Kiss it better?"


She might have offered him a hand-wash and a clean sticking plaster, except she's worried he'll take that as a come on, so she brews his tea instead, leaves it to stew at his elbow. She dislikes how free he is with his language, and always the innuendo, like the sleazy red top rag he buys from Mackenzies and waves about rolled up like an officer's baton. She imagines a gentleman wouldn't talk that way in front of a woman. He could be oily as he liked by day, but still a gentleman, and by night scrub up like new, but she suspects Squinty even sleeps in his overalls, and she knows for sure his superman tee shirt is into its third day now.


She gives him a frosty smile, steps back from the staleness and takes a cloth to the machine.


Many things he might be but a gentleman Squinty is not.


"Used that contraption yet?" he asks.


"Course I have," she lies.


"Waste 'o fuckin money, you ask me. Fancy thing like that in this place. Where do you think this is? Picka-fucking-dilly?"


"Well no one did ask you, John. Now, you're early for your pies, but shall I put 'em in while you wait?"


"Aye, go on."


He spills a clatter of coins onto the counter, adding a helping of grimy detritus for good measure - bits of paper, twists of tobacco, a couple of oily screws. Hermione sighs. She'll be a while cleaning that lot up, a while cleaning off the barstool too if the last time's anything to go by. Maybe he'd have turned out differently with a woman behind him, but so far as she can work out there's only Maureen from the Kings Head, and then only when she's off her head on gin of a Saturday night, and she's definitely not the keeping sort, not even for a man like Squinty. No, his only permanent fixtures are an old dog, literally barking mad, and a heap of rusty cars in an age when cars don't rust much any more.


The door again.


In walks the stranger.


'Eyes, Minny. Look! They're gentle.'


He turns them away, hides them from her in a blink, brushes his hair back.


'Ah,... he's a little shy. That's nice. That makes a change. A good man, Minny. And the smile,... oh, Minny, do you see the smile! It's sweetness itself.'


She squares up to him. "So," she says. "What can I get you darlin'?"






Chapter Three


Finn surveyed the scene, the improbable fresh-paint brightness, and pristine cleanliness of the interior of the Sea View Cafe, juxtaposed with the besmirched, boiler-suited clientele of one. And the woman. Surely she was dressed for higher class waitressing than a little seaside cafe: smart black skirt, pressed white linen blouse, and made up to the nines like,... what? What was she like? Did they still call that,... Goth? Short, spiked black hair, charcoal lipstick, a white powder on her face, black Panda eyes on account of the liner, and studdings in her nose and brow.


And did she just call him darling?


"Em,.."


She followed his eyes to the coffee machine. He hesitated, was drawn back to her startling looks. Her lips parted, and she gave him an encouraging smile.


"Go on," she said, a curious twinkle in her eyes, a challenge in them, he thought.


"Machine's brand new. Be adventurous. Make my day."


The boiler suited man had the look of a toad and the toad let out a non-too-stifled belch as if to deflate the woman's enthusiasm. Finn knew they were just words anyway, but before the deflating belch they'd lifted him half way to his father's shoulders again, so he could see all the way to Ireland.


'Well do you see it boy?'


"Em,..." Decision Finn. Do you stay or do you go back to the way it was? "Americano, please. Black, no sugar."


"There, now you're talking. Sit you down, darlin'. I'll bring it over."


She turned to the machine, banged the scoop, turned the handles, made steam.


Whoosh!


Finn caught the toad's eye and they exchanged a careful nod. The toad was local, Finn was not. They were both wondering about one another. It was the territoriality of the male. That sort of thing. The toad claims ownership of the female perhaps, on account of being here first. And whatever the female thinks, he dislikes her fussing over the stranger, dislikes her calling him darling.


Finn thought about this. He liked her calling him darling, even though he knew she didn't mean it.


Curious, Finn.


He turned away, took a seat in the window and gazed out over the sea again. It was easier to watch the sea from here, in the warm, easier to slip back into the romance of it when it was not biting your ears, or spitting in your face.


Ireland!


Was he wrong? Could you see it from here on a good day? His father was Irish: County Wexford. That made Finn half Irish too. He'd discovered he could apply for citizenship, swap his red passport for the green, disappear into the emerald softness of the far away. It had made no sense to do it before, but now, with Britain voting to come out of the European Union, it was a way back in for him, should he want it, the Republic still being a full, if somewhat now impoverished member. Is that where he belonged? Was Carrickbar not far enough away from things? Must he embrace the myth of his ancestry before he could be happy?


Where did any of us belong anyway?


'Fuck's sake, Finn, you're overthinking this as usual!'


Home was where love was. And when love died, it was time to go. But you couldn't just run out on people, could you? You couldn't just run out on a life you'd spent your whole life building up from the ground!


Could you?


The woman brought his coffee, a fancy little biscuit on the side. She was trying hard, he thought, and not without appreciation, but this was still a small seaside cafe and seriously out of season; there was only so much altitude to be gained. He noted a neat little badge on her breast which said: Hermione. He noted also she wore a man's Paul Jobin wristwatch, gold, from the pre quartz era. Finn's era. It had stopped. Beside it, a cheap plastic fashion branded thing kept up the time, all black but for the fake diamond hour markers.


"Thanks," he said, and then, impulsively: "There were caravans once."


"Sorry, darlin'?"


"Up on the hill. Caravans. I came here on holiday as a kid."


"Caravans? Before my time. What about you John? Do you remember caravans on the hill?"


Squinty had taken out his newspaper and was hiding behind it. He shrugged, grunted. Squinty remembered the caravans of course, remembered them very well, but preferred not to be drawn. Let the stranger pass on through, unenlightened, he thought.


Fucking incomer.


Finn smiled. "Well, it was a long time ago."


He could smell pies warming, wondered if he should be hungry yet, but wasn't, though it must have been twenty four hours since he'd last eaten. He took a sip of his coffee. It was good, bracingly aromatic, stimulating, but still a little hot, so he set it down while it cooled, and he turned his eyes once more to the sea. Then his phone was ringing. He fished it from his pocket and without looking at it, switched it off.


Who would that have been then? Work? He'd served his notice. They'd no call on him any more. Home? It would just be money the kids were after, or a ride into town. Or Kathleen? No, he didn't expect he'd hear from her for a while.


Squinty, folded his newspaper carefully, as if gathering courage and then in a stage whisper said: "So, I'll show you mine, if you'll show me yours?"


"What's that then, John?"


"Tattoo," he said. "What did you think I meant?" He laughed, a low, filthy laugh. "Bet you got a cute little tattoo 'bove your arse like all them other saucy little girls."


"Haven't got any tattoo, John. Not there or anywhere, thank you. Now you behave yourself and watch your tongue with me, or I'll send you on your way, and you can get your pies some place else."


Undeterred, Squinty rolled up his sleeve to display a faded crown and anchor upon a Popeyesque forearm which he now slapped upon the counter.


"Yes, John. You've shown me that before. Now just mind my clean counter will you. You're even more full of grease than usual today."


Squinty laughed, a low gravelly sort of laugh. "Oh, girly, you've no idea how dirty I can be."


"Now that's enough you old rogue. And I mean it. You can get your pies cold from Mackintyres in future."


Squinty was undaunted, laughed some more. "Less of the old, if you don't mind."


Finn kept his shoulder to the man, turned his head more squarely away. The girl's welcome had swung it, he'd thought: 'darlin' indeed! But the primate lechery of the oily man was fast eroding things. Why in decline could we not avoid settling into dirt? Sure, the guy was only joking, jesting, bantering, but his tone was low, ignorant, lewd, unwelcome.


His future still undecided, Finn paid for the coffee and walked out.




Chapter Four


"Didn't 'ave much to say for 'isself did he?" says Squinty.


"Not as much as you, John, that's for sure."


"And didn't think much of your coffee either. Left half of it. So much for your fancy machine."


"That's 'cos you got a gob on you like,... like,... I dunno,.. like a dirty old man."


"So?"


"So, not everyone wants to put up with it."


He was nice, thinks Hermione, the stranger, beard excepting, but married. She's clocked the ring, and interpreted something in the eyes as what her mother might have called 'long married' - and now he's gone, passed on, a ship in the freezing midwinter. She watches his back as he descends the hill, still that coiled in look about him, and she wonders about his story. A real page turner she reckons, not like the long line of set asides she's known. He looked to be in his forties, too,... late forties judging by the flecks of grey. But hell, she didn't want kids, or even marriage. She just wanted to be with someone, to wake up with someone, nice and clean each morning and know they'd be there, and be tender. What was wrong with that? Was that asking too much?


'Foolish Minnie.'


'Oh, who asked you!'


She would have gazed out for longer, watched him all the way back to his car, possibly raising Squinty's suspicions and childish taunts, except just then the Ainsley kid comes hurtling down the hill on a rickety old bike that Squinty had sold him only the other day. Gorgeous looking lad, half her age, more's the pity, but not much between the ears, bless him. She'd heard he was home from his Dads, now touting his humble CV among the minimum wage slavers in town. Poor kid.


He draws level with the stranger, then his bike gives a wobble and he goes down in the road like a sack of spuds. Hermione's hand jerks up to her mouth, and she gives a startled gasp.


The stranger is momentarily stunned, then steps into the road to help the boy. But the boy isn't moving, and Hermione is out the door and trotting down the street as fast as she can in her heels. By the time she makes it, he's sitting on the kerb with his head in his hands, weeping while snowy sheets of newly minted CV spiral in the wind. At least the boy seems okay now. The stranger's hand is on his shoulder providing a silent comfort, surprised perhaps to see such uninhibited emotion. He's not embarrassed though, she notes, and she approves of that. There's a dribble of blood coming from the boy's nose and a shallow graze on his forehead. She wipes the former with a tissue, holds a fancy patterned serviette to the latter, then puts the boy's hand up to keep it there. His hands are full of gravel. She brushes it away, makes it better for him.


"Nothing broken, I don't think," says Finn. "Just the wind knocked out."


The boy's hands are swollen, cold and blue, out all day with his bag of CV's, and a bucketful of naive optimism. And now this. Hermione wants to weep with him.


Finn examines the bike. "I can probably fix it," he says. "Loose wheel nuts, that's all. I have a spanner in the car."


She looks at him, at the stranger, feels the warmth in him, nods her thanks. "I'll take him up the cafe for a brew then. Perhaps you could wheel it up when you're done?"


"Sure."


"Come on then, Kyle, darlin', come have a sit down up the cafe with me. Is your Mam around today?"


Kyle nods.


"We'll call her, eh?"


"Nah, I'll be fine. She'll only worry."


"All righty then." She thinks of Squinty, watching all of this, knows the boy's slowness is the butt of jokes, imagines the incident being embellished over beer and raucous laughter in the King James tonight. "You dry your eyes now, darlin'."


She speaks to him like a child, it comes naturally, but feels strange when he rises a full head above her. He turns, looks anxiously as Finn wheels his bike away. Hermione is quick to reassure him. "Man said he'll fix it for you."


Kyle shakes his head as if for the first time coming awake. "Don't know what happened, Hermione. Sorry."


"That old bike, that's what happened. Get it off Squinty Mulligan did you? Saw you lookin' at it the other day. He's up there now. We'll have a word with him, shall we? Get your money back. How much you pay for it?"


"No,.. no. My fault."


And Hermione's thinking it's a miracle, the way his mother is, and the stories she's heard of his dad, that between them they could have come up with such a sweet kid. "Any luck?" she asks. "I mean with the job hunting?"


He shakes his head. Shrugs. Forgives the world with a sigh.


"Bad time, winter, in a seaside town," she says. "Got to make your living in the summer, 'cos come winter all there's left is the come and go of the tide."


"Hmm? Who's that man?"


"Don't know, Kyle. Stranger, that's all, passing through. Seems nice. He'll fix your bike, like he promised. You'll see."


"Okay."


"Now, in you go. Through the back, go wash your hands and face."


And then, when the door has closed and she's alone with Squinty, she wipes the spreading smirk off his face by lowering her eyes to his: "You sold the boy that bike, didn't you?"


"Bike was fine when he rode it away."


"Death trap more like."


"You know how kids are. They break everything."


"You return his money and take that piece of scrap back."


Squinty is offended. "Deal's a deal. And the lads not short of money."


No, that was true, or at least it's what they were saying. Anything he wanted his mother would give it. But what the lad wanted was to feel like he was pulling his weight. He wanted to feel useful, wanted some face among the people here, and a job was the best kind of face.


"You took advantage."


"As if."


"Look, you give him his money back,..."


"Why should I?"


Hermione takes a deep breath. "You give him his money back, and I'll,..."


"And you'll what?"


"I'll show you my tattoo." She nods to drive home the nail and sees Squinty's eyes widen. Then the ugly blacks of them dilate in a way she's not expecting and it makes her shudder. There's a lust in him all right, and easily aroused. He needs watching, this dirty old man.


Ughh!


Kyle shambles through, dripping water from his hands, tries not to look Squinty in the eye, but Squinty touches his elbow as he passes. "Hey lad. Thirty quid weren't it? Bike wasn't ready. Hope you're not too badly shook. Wheel it back down the garage for me and we'll call it quits eh?"


Kyle looks confused, backs way from the oily tenners Squinty has just peeled from his wallet. "Stranger said he'd fix it."


Squinty gives a dismissive sneer. "He can try."


Kyle looks to Hermione, reads the nod, and takes the money. "Well,... all right then. Thanks, Mr. Mulligan."


Squinty looks to Hermione, settles his elbows on the counter. "Okey Dokey," he says. "Divvy up. Or shall we say later round my place?"


But Hermione really doesn't have a tattoo. She'd said it on the spare of the moment, knowing it might be the one thing that would open Squinty's wallet. It worked too. Kyle had his money and some face back, but now,...


'Never were one for thinking things through, were you Minnie?'




Chapter Five


Finn was puzzled by the way the lad had gone down, puzzled by his own emotions as he'd sat there with him, at the way the shock had brought up the tears so quick in the lad. It had reminded him of a time when his own boys had needed that kind of quiet sympathy. But that was a long time ago, and though they weren't much older than Kyle, they needed very little from Finn now. Indeed, they'd grown overlarge, like cuckoos, crowding him out of his own nest. The most he got out them these days was the sneer of an all knowing arrogance that surprised and dismayed him. So, to see a boy of this age possessed of sufficient humility to weep so openly touched him deeply.


'Are neither of you going to bed? I've got work in the morning!'


'Chill out dad. It's nearly finished.'


Ah, yes, Finn recalled the nightly fencing over the noise of the TV. They'd be at it until the small hours, or until they passed out. Sometimes he'd find them still lying there of a morning as he crept about getting ready for work, not wanting to wake them, even though they'd kept him awake all night, and could now lie in, undisturbed, until mid-afternoon. He wondered if it was a natural thing, if teenagers in ancient hunter gatherer times had been used to patrol the camps all night, to watch over their sleeping elders.


'At least they get on.' Kathleen's only response.


Well it was all right for her, spending most of the week away, sleeping in good hotels, and only Finn stepping out into the dawn, half drunk with fatigue for the daily commute. But it was true, they did get on - united in their contempt of him.


Bean counter. Number cruncher. Grey old fart.


'Borrow your laptop Dad?'


'Sorry Wayne it's my work's laptop. You infect this with cyberclap and I lose my job. All right?'


'I'll be careful.'


'Wayne, you're not borrowing my laptop, all right?'


'Mean bastard.'


Was it all right for a young man to call his father a bastard? The lad would soften it with a half smile, and then following Finn's outrage there would come the one size fits all retort: 'Chill out dad, I was only joking.'


And then, as he was walking out the door, already late and thinking ahead to the faces around the table when he presented the latest budget cuts: 'No milk, Dad.'


'Then you shouldn't have drunk it all last night. You know where the shop is.'


'No money. Lend us a tenner?'


'You need to get a job.'


But the tenner was unfolded from the wallet anyway, like a duty, like the one honourable thing left for him to do, when all else had fallen away, to support his children, even though they were now men and needed to support themselves - no matter how modestly at first.


'They were advertising for staff there yesterday. I mean at the shop.'


'Not servin' in no fuckin' shop.'


So, out into the commute, heart already thumping,...


It puzzled Finn for a while how the nuts holding the front wheel wouldn't tighten. He had the bike round the back of the car, boot lid up where he could get at his toolbox. The wind was blowing cold now, something wet in it. He ran the nuts off and peered through them. Both threads were stripped almost clean. The only thing holding them on had been spit. It was a marvel the lad had ridden the bike anywhere at all.


They laughed at him, his kids, Kathleen too, driving around in a car with a toolbox. Just in case, he said. He'd been brought up in an era when cars broke down all the time, and a toolbox might be the difference between you getting home or having to call the patrol man out, and the difference in that was a whole lot of inconvenience. But the lads would just have called the patrol man out anyway, he supposed, or called him out to sort it out for them because there was no pride to be had in self reliance these days, just as there was no pleasure to be had in getting things going any more. Wayne and Gavin's definition of pleasure was taking the piss out of anything that moved, including him,... that, and smoking weed of course.


Was it the weed that had been the last straw? The stink of it in his summer house, and the sneering denial? It was hard to say what had pushed him into the course he was now on.


Disgust, despair,...


Yes, it had been Carina's idea, and he would do anything Carina told him to - well, almost anything. But if he'd not been so desperate to get away, would he have listened to her at all?


Carina.


He needed to let Carina know he was okay.


It hadn't always been that way with the boys. They'd had the infinite promise of all youth once. Ridden bikes, skinned their knees, squealed to be pushed higher and higher on the swings. When had it ended? He supposed it was when he walked in to find them playing a video game with a cut scene showing a beastly tattooed man giving it to a woman up the arse. And they looked at him like he was intruding in his own living room, and they laughed at his reproaches like he was just a boring old man who didn't get the real world any more.


'Chill out, Dad. It's just a game.'


By chance he had a couple of nuts from those early bike days in the bottom of the toolbox. A squirt of WD 40 and they ran on to the spindle easily, and tightened up securely. The lad was in luck. The bike still wasn't up to much and it looked like the brakes were shot. He adjusted the cables, pulled them up a bit. Five minutes and the bike was serviceable. Was there no one in the world capable of doing this kind of stuff any more?


Anyway,... did he go or did he stay?


Stay where?


Carrickbar, Finn.


He'd been for going home, already wondering if the lads had expired for want of someone to heat their pot noodle, but now he'd discovered a rich vein of emotion about the place. And the woman, Hermione - the way she'd come clattering down the hill, bursting compassion at every seam - it had awed him, left him wishing it was him with the grazed forehead, and the focus of such an unsolicited and overwhelming human warmth. But that was a dangerous thing for a man in his position to be thinking.


He'd give it another half hour, see what else happened.


He bounced the bike back onto its tyres and pushed it up to the Sea View Café.


Hermione.


Interesting name.


And it was a good looking woman, made up to perfection, all be it in her own idiosyncratic way, with a face like porcelain. But she was robust, bursting at the seams with compassion, and there was that cosy warmth about her. And the lad? A bit slow maybe, but a good heart, and resilient. On the scale of welcome, the pair of them had tipped things more towards the positive. There was just the greasy old guy threatening to outbalance them. But Finn reminded himself he was not looking for people. He was looking for anonymity, and a crack to crawl into while he mended himself sufficiently to join the human race again.


He leaned the bike against one of the upturned tables, wondered briefly about uprighting the table first, but was inhibited by the eyes of Hermione which he now felt upon him through the plate glass window. Strange, he thought, the way she made him feel - a little on edge, a little embarrassed.


Stepping back inside, the warmth of the café overwhelmed him.


"All done," he said.


Kyle, sipping a hot chocolate in the corner now, looked up, frothy moustache and all, unsure what to do, or to say, as the bike was no longer his. "It's all right?" he asked. "Really?"


"No problem. Those wheel-nuts were stripped clean, and the brakes were lethal, but it's fine now."


Hermione looked daggers at Squinty. Kyle, fanned the tenners, considered his options, concluded that he needed a bike, trusted the stranger when he said he'd fixed it, then walked over to Squinty and handed them back. "I'll keep it," he said.


Hermione let out a sigh of relief that she would no longer be baring her imaginary tattoos. Squinty pocketed the money. "Suit yourself," he growled. "But don't be changing your mind again."


"I won't," said Kyle.


Finn observed all of this and wondered what the story was. Kyle hovered awkwardly, nodded obliquely. "Thanks," he said, and offered his hand to shake.


Finn took it, pressed it once. There was definitely life in the lad, he thought, but he had his cross to bear and was stuck for a direction. "Name's Finn."


Kyle's eyes lit up. "Finn? Like with a shark?"


"Well, not exactly. Longhand it's Finbar. An Irish name. After my Grandad. Shortens to Finn."


"Okay. I'm Kyle."


"I'm off," said Squinty, having observed the long grey outline of a Volvo pulling up outside.


Hermione hadn't seen him move so fast in a while, and wasted no time in wiping the last of him away. "Can I get you another coffee, Finbar?" she asked.


"Oh,... Finn, please. Finbar's such a mouthful. Coffee, no thanks, better not. Caffeine is a habit I should be breaking."


"A hot chocolate then? On the house."


"Sounds good, but I can pay for that."


"I won't let you. Chocolate it is then."


Finn nodded, suspecting favours from Hermione were hard won and he'd do well to accept with grace. "Thank you."


He sat opposite Kyle, if only because the table was the one he'd sat at before, and Finn was the kind of creature that took comfort in habit. "Em,... so,... how's the wounds?"


Kyle took a gulp of chocolate, and didn't look too concerned with the way the day was turning out. "Oh,... I'm okay," he said.


The door-chimes tinkled and all looked up as a woman, tall and elegant walked in. Finn's eyes widened as he was hit by the full stunning force of her: fur coat, voluminous mane of blonde hair, and a face, he thought, that would have launched a thousand ships, had it not also been so haughty and severe - or perhaps they would have launched themselves all the quicker for that.


Kyle sagged. "Hi Mum."


Stiletto heels rang out on the café tiles, a slow staccato, a torpedo track to Finn's table. Hands on hips, she took him in, this man sitting with her son, then she turned to Kyle and, as if Finn was not there at all, she said: "Who is this?"


"Oh, this is Finn. He mended my bike. I fell off it. And Hermione, made us chocolate for free!"


She reached out a hand to Kyle, cupped his chin and turned his head to examine the graze. Finn had never seen a hand as beautiful - lightly tanned, delicately boned, impressive collection of gold jewels, and a jewelled Rolex wristwatch, the value of which he could have lived a whole year off. This was class, this was Lady-of the Manor stuff, except the accent was foreign. Polish perhaps? "You are good to ride this broken bicycle home?"


Kyle nodded. "It's not broken now. Mr Finn fixed it for me."


"Sure?"


"Sure, Mum."


She sighed, touched the tip of his nose with her fingers, allowed them to linger affectionately. "I see you later, then." And to Finn, as if only just acknowledging his presence. "You live around here?"

All of this Finn had watched like the unfolding of a play, the characters, the action,... and he had pondered its meaning in relation to the question he had set out to answer earlier that day. And now the players had turned round to him directly and demanded he answer, that his time was up, that he was on their stage and was he for joining in or not?


So,... did he live in Carrickbar?


What was it to be, Finn?


"Just moving in," he said. "Today. So I'm kind of new around here."


She fixed him with one imperious eye, peered slightly down her nose as if to sniff the truth in him, then graced him with a nod which he took to be as close as she would ever come to melting the frost. This was a proud woman, the like of which one rarely saw. This was ,... royalty, this was the Queen of Carrickbar. Another curt nod was proffered to Hermione. "Thank you," she said. "Both. For helping my son."


Hermione banged the scoop, turned her back, made steam, pretended business. "No bother," she said.


Finn felt the stab in her voice, the prickling of her body language as Kyle's mother slid by, regal, unperturbed.


It was as well he had not come to fall in love, he thought, or he would be stuck for choice - always assuming of course one could choose to love, or not.



Chapter Six


Stuck up bitch! Hermione takes a cloth to the chrome, wipes away the steam. And look at him, Mr Finbar, the helpless puppy, his tongue hanging out and drooling into his chocolate.


But he's staying. Living. In Carrickbar, and he's good with kids.


So what? Fuck him. Mr Fucking Finbar.


Kyle drinks up and with a shy wave to them both, carries on his way.


Hermione's face melts into affection and she waves back. "You take care now, darlin'."


"Okay."


Then he's at the counter, this Finbar - name as big a mouthful as her own. What would their Ford Escort Sun-strip shorten to? Fin and Min? She laughs out loud at that, stifles it into an unbecoming porcine snort. She's embarrassed, covers her mouth. "Sorry."


Finn is struggling not to laugh with her, something infectious about her. "Thank you, for the chocolate. Are you sure you won't let me pay?"


It's just a cup of chocolate, darlin'. It's not worth anything. She shakes her head. "So," she says. "Movin' in you said?"


"My first day," he replies. "Renting a house in Elm Street."


"Ah, heard that place was empty now. You like it?"


"Haven't seen it yet."


This is curious, she thinks, it adds volumes to his story. "Well, it's nice enough. I lived there for a bit until I got this place licked into shape. It's on the small side. But cosy. And clean."


Finn nods. She lived there too? "Well, I don't take up much room." There's a look about him as he lowers the cup to the counter. There was more in that than he'd meant to say, and he's embarrassed it slipped out. And then he spoils the mystery of it by asking: "Who was that woman?"


She bites her lip. "That? Oh, impressive, eh? That was Helena Aynslea. Lives up at the white house on top of the hill." And she's thinking, unkindly: at least that's where her husband dumped her. And I'm Hermione Watts, Finbar, and a better bet than Mrs Frosty knickers for sure, except I don't like men with beards, even the those with smiling eyes and sweet, sweet smiles.


"And you're Hermione?"


"Says so on the badge, darlin'. Call me Minny if you like."


He nods. "Thank you again."


And then he's gone, and this time she's watching him all the way down the hill to his car, and wondering idly what that smell is, and realising too late it's Squinty's pies, and they're burned beyond decent - even for the likes of Squinty Mulligan. Then she's banging the counter and saying out loud: Minny? Do I look like a Minny, you ninny? And a little voice is reminding her: Your dad would call you Minnie, remember?


She draws up, thinks a moment. Yes he did. But she doesn't want a dad, she wants a man, a good man to look at her and make her feel like the woman she wants to be. And she knows it's not the done thing any more, and that a woman should just be able to be herself without the help of a man on her arm or in her bed. And anyway it's all academic as they say, and has been for years, and even if it wasn't, Finbar what's-his-name is not that man because any man who'd drool like that after a woman like Helena no-knicks isn't worth the dreaming of.


Fucking moron!


'But he was hardly drooling, Minny.' That inner voice again, the gentle voice, the voice of reason. 'He was just asking.'


Well, who cares? It doesn't matter. I'm managing fine on my own, aren't I?



Chapter Seven


The house was a two up-two down, newly plastered and painted white throughout. It reminded him of the Sea View Café, and he wondered if Hermione had had a hand in renovating it. Strange, she'd once lived here, he thought. It also made the walls seem less cold. How to rid a place of winter grey? With an explosion of white.


There were no furnishings and only a uniform and deep blue carpeting, both up and down stairs. From the back there wasn't much of a view, other than the old buckled homesteads and their idiosyncratic demarcations. Carrickbar was ancient. The harbours of England are among the longest settled, and much of Carrickbar was still seventeenth century, though not wearing well, at least not in a pretty, touristy sort of way.


You didn't need money to live here, that was for sure. Instead you had to carry your hope like a lantern, because the place itself was lost in the dark of a half century of decline. From the upper front room, the bedroom, Finn could see the sea. There was also a smell of pine in here, and a smell of paint, and a freshness to it all that cheered him, but that it cheered him also made him want to weep. As he moved about the place, taking it in, he tried to catch the scent of Hermione. And he wondered why he would be doing that.


The first job was to order furniture - just the basics, he thought. But what were the basics of life these days? A bed? He would get a double because he was used to spreading out, with Kathleen away most of the time; also a good sized desk, and a plain chair for sitting at it, and a good lamp; then a comfortable sofa for lounging on in the day. He ordered also a large computer screen and a Bluetooth keyboard and a mouse for his laptop, to set up on the desk when the desk came. All of this was ordered through the Internet on his 'phone on the evening of the first day.


And for the first night, he slept in a bag on a pump up mattress he had taken from the garage at home - relic of a long ago camping trip with the boys.


'The boys who had now become weed-smoking men.'


'Yes, yes, all right, we've already established that.'


When his phone started ringing again in the night, this time as he was dropping off, he removed the SIM card, and replaced it with the other he had bought on the drive up, and felt at once, as the little thing clicked into place, that he had erased himself properly to start afresh. The old SIM, he considered snapping in two, but things were not so final yet, and instead he fixed it to the back of an old business card, sealed it safe under a first class stamp. He was always careful what he threw away, like those old wheel-nuts, in case he needed it again.


The house was a surprise, curiously optimistic. He had expected something dirty and run down. What he'd got was something clean and warm. Even waking the following morning with a stiff back took none of the fresh-start sparkle away. The BT man was early, rapping on the door, and in a matter of minutes, Finn also had broadband. It was rather a modest two megabits per second, explained the man, Carrickbar being rather off the beaten track and lucky to be getting it at all, but it was more than adequate for what Finn wanted. He'd had twenty megabits at home, but that was mostly wasted on computer games and streaming crazy cat videos, his own modest needs crowded out to a snail's pace by his childrens' penchant for virtual violence and cruelty.


He'd previously calculated the money would last him a year, but living like this, carefully, he realised it might last him two. He'd not been saving the money specifically for this eventuality, more for a sizeable deposit on a Range Rover, which Kathleen had tried to convince him better befitted his station in life as a cutter of services - a tank to do battle in, to cut down the dispossessed rabble coming back at them with pitch-forks.


'I'm going away to think for a bit.'


Had he really said that to Kathlene?


'Don't be worried I might do myself in, because I won't. I need some space,... to think. That's all.'


No, he'd not said any of that, not spoken it. Instead he'd texted it after the text from her telling him her week in New York was being extended to two, and then to three. And she'd texted back: "What about the boys?" Not: why are you going away? Are we all right Finn? Are you all right?


Was this a thing with mothers? Were they blind to the size of their offspring? Did they look at the overweight, unshaven sloth, draped upon the sofa, half eaten pizza on its chest, and still see the tiny bundle of flesh that had once sucked at her tit?


"I'm sure they'll manage," he'd replied.


But he'd cared little if they did or not. Was that wrong? Was that neglectful of him as a father? Or was it more his place as a father to push them out of the nest, before he could love them as men. Fly or fall. Sink or swim. And what if they would not go? What if they could not get the high powered jobs they'd been promised by the Russel GroupUniversity would be theirs for the taking? What if they'd decided the minimum wage, zero hours contract, unskilled economy was beneath them? What did that make him, that he had gone to seek his space elsewhere?


Of course he had not told Kathleen how long he would be away, nor that he had arranged the lease on a house three hundred miles from his home in Aylesbury, quit his job and gone up north. That would be for later. Things were such a mess, he could only deal with them one small drip at a time.


Space.


Strange how he'd ended up with no space. There was a four bedroomed house, a big living room, in which the TV was always on, driving him out with its puerile nonsense. Then there was a kitchen, made a permanent tip from the constant snacking of the boys from mid afternoon, when they rose, to the small hours of the morning. That left him the bedroom, or the little wooden summer house in which he suspected they were smoking weed. And by the time he was coming home some nights, Kathleen was thinking of bed anyway, at least on those days she was home at all, and by then the boys had the living room festooned with the wires of their game-stations and the rat a tat tat of wargaming, or the effing and blinding of simulated urban grunge, or the grunts of muscle-men giving it to women up the arse,....


Well, sometimes that's just how it goes, Finn.


And the boys were not boys at all, but men of twenty five and twenty six, with degrees in business-speak and no jobs, and the minimum wage in the corner shop was beneath them so they would not entertain it, and can you lend me fifty quid Dad so I can go clubbing? So he would give them the money, thinking they would like him for it, think him generous, kind, and a good father.


They did not.


They did not think of him at all.


And he would only give himself a heart attack berating them. Again.


"You must let it all go," said Carina.


Carina?


Who was she?


Carina was the senior psychiatrist he'd unexpectedly befriended at the hospital. Or was it she who had befriended him? He couldn't remember now.


"Learn to meditate. Exercise more. Or it will kill you."


He'd talked to her about the headaches, about the dizziness, about the sickness he would feel of a morning before coming in to work. To his surprise, she'd not advised him to see his GP, had told him straight it was a waste of time, that the journey from the GP to her consulting room was such a rocky road few ever made it. And Finn knew that, because he was the one handing her the budget each year that said: less.


And Kathleen had not let him touch her in a decade, which he'd also told Carina. And when he masturbated now even the most frantic jerking could yield no more than a dribble, which he had not told Carina for the shame of it. But altogether, he no longer felt the same, even about the women he dreamed of, including Carina who was every man's ideal muse: good looking, empathic, wise and sexual.


But maybe the asexual life would suit him better, the life of a monk.


Maybe he'd have no choice.


If he could only find the space.


To think about all of this.


Hermione frowned as Finn ordered the full English. Again. "You won't be making a habit of this will you, Finbar?"


"Eh?"


"Bad for you, every day."


She was dressed much the same he noted, except this time the blouse came down over a pair of black leggings, but the porcelain make-up and the black paint was as yesterday, also the Paul Jobin wristwatch, this time looped around her belt. The brow piercings had gone, and the nose stud was smaller, drawing attention to the otherwise perfect picture of her face.


"I do need to be careful." he smiled, a little defensively.


She was such a pretty woman, this Hermione, and alarmingly open. He could not allow her to get too close in case she turned out to be the sort who did not need to be asked, the sort who, like Carina, did the asking, did the talking, the telling, the taking. There were women like that, he thought. Sure, Carina was like that and he still felt a fool refusing her invitation to stay over that time. But he was not looking for an affair. It was just that his loneliness, hundreds of miles away from home, rendered him vulnerable to one.


He needed to be careful.


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