lunes, 21 de enero de 2008

Strangers

We arrived more than two hours later than planned, but the west of England summer light had not yet faded even to dusk. A soft golden glow was just growing across the sunset, which had just tinged a flat-calm sea beyond this tumbling village. We were tourists here, strangers in this small, tightly-knit place.

For us it was just part of a tour, a long weekend snatched in common from the clutches of our combined, ever demanding careers. I felt utterly liberated, that beautiful evening, as we walked the quarter mile or so down the steep dry cobbles from the obligatory car park into the car-less village, the deadlines and demands of advertising for once confined outside the limits of this small place. And I could tell from the spring in Jenny’s step that her battles with bottom sets in Lewisham were now further distant than our three days on the road.

There was a small gift shop, a tourist-trap trinket place, just a hundred yards along the lane. I bought the newspaper our early departure from St. Ives had denied me, my daily fix of political gossip now long established as an essential feature of my adoption into London life. I explained that we were strangers here, had driven down the side road in the hope of finding something interesting and had nothing booked.

The shopkeeper said we had just three options – the Old Hotel just down the lane, a bed and breakfast at the bottom by the harbour or the farm near the junction with the main road, back where we had turned off.

“It was different years ago,” he said, “when lots of people used to stay over, but now it’s all day trippers and holiday homes. Ten years ago we had half a dozen guest houses, but they’ve all closed down.”

The Old Hotel was just two hundred yards from the shop, at the head of the steep cove that housed the tangled triangle of the village. It was a bit beyond the price we usually paid and had AA stars framed over its reception desk, but we fell for the place and checked in, just for one night. It was the kind of mock Jacobean black and white inn, whose lack of a straight line just might have suggested it was original. But the beams were hollow and the plaque above the entrance said, “Refurbished 1958.”

“Do you have any luggage to bring from the car park?” the receptionist asked. The name tag pinned to her blouse said, ‘Hilary, Manageress’. “We have a man with a donkey and sledge who will bring it down for you.” She wasn’t joking.

I lifted our two hold-alls and said it was all we had. She smiled, offering politeness but communicating knowledge tinged with judgment. It was in an era when it was still unusual for a couple to sign in without obviously trying to appear married.

We took the key for room number six. There were only eight and the other seven keys were still hanging on their hooks when we took the lift – yes, the lift! – to the upper floor. Number six was at the back, of course, right above the kitchen extractor fan and overlooked an enclosed yard with a yellowed corrugated plastic roof. It hid an array of lidless dustbins, from which a hint of an aroma sweetened the still air when we opened the windows to encourage the previous occupant’s cigarette smoke to leave. We dropped the bags and walked down to the sea to absorb the last of the late springtime sun at its setting.

The beach was shingle and small, hard-packed against a harbour wall that extended a good fifty yards into the shallow sea. A couple of clapperboard buildings, largely rotten, clung to its prominence, their profit long past, but their structures all but remaining. There were doors missing and one structure had no interior, the uncovered entrance revealing merely sky beyond. At one time, clearly, the locals had something of a living from this place, fishing perhaps, maybe small trade, smuggling in poor times, salvage by design, who knows. And then came the tourists, the stranger trade of nineteenth century invention that evaporated when the trunk road widened and rendered the place no more than a day trip from anywhere this side of Birmingham or London.

As we walked back up the deceptively steep single track that bisected the village, we passed several open doorways seeking air on this unseasonably balmy evening at the end of May. After London everything here felt so cosy, so small, warm and unthreatening, as if the place itself were welcoming us into its embracing fold.

We saw just two other people, both descending the path, and independently both offered greeting. “Isn’t it pretty,” said Jenny. “Don’t you wish you lived here?” I declined to answer.

We ate at the Old Hotel. There was nowhere else. We ordered the grilled sole with parsley butter. Potatoes and broccoli were the ‘legumes de saison’. It took over half an hour for the food to appear. We finished the bottle of house white we had ordered to go with the fish long before even the smell of cooking wafted through from the kitchen. We got significant giggles speculating on how far out into the Bristol Channel the boat had to go to catch our order. We ate. It wasn’t bad, and then we moved across to the bar, the four steps needed to change location effectively redefining us from guests to locals. A concertina glass partition separated the areas in theory, but tonight it had been opened wide for ventilation. The rest of the evening became a tale of three women, Hilary, Sue and Sandra, all of whom have dreamt.

The hotel bar is the only place to drink, so it’s a pub, complete with its regulars. A half a dozen men are collectively and determinedly engaged in preventing the oak top from rising, their planted elbows firmly ensuring its continued sojourn on earth. They are passing the time of night with what seems to be a predictable set of platitudes. “I bought the D-reg because I thought it would work out cheaper in the long run, what with the smaller servicing bills and the like... …But you ought to do more of that sort of thing yourself and then you wouldn’t have to pay anything at all… … Yes, I know, but I just don’t have the time. Have you, these days?... …Give us another, Sandra… …You go just beyond the first turning… …Down past the egg farm where my brother used to work… …They are really cheap if you buy them by the sack… …bloody heavy, mind you…”

She is forty going on sixty, utterly contemptuous of what she sees before her, yet utterly resigned – or condemned – to servicing its every need. She is rather large and quite square, both in face and body. She’s been like that ever since she can remember. Black hair, cut quite, but not very short and swept to a wave at the front showing that she has spent not a little time tonight cleansing and preening herself before starting work behind the bar at the Old Hotel. On the other side of the argument is a series of slobs, one of whom we only ever seem to see from the back. His head is triangular with apex at the base. A pair of key-in-keyhole ears protrude. He was probably called ‘wing-nut’ by his classmates at school. I resist the temptation to grab an ear-key and twist it to see what it might unlock. From the bar talk we can clearly hear, the answer surely is not much.

Mr Ears is something of a leader, he thinks. He rarely lets any conversation that is shared by the others to pass without his own inserted comment. He wears a boiler suit, heavily stained, and a pair of Doc Martins that have seen better decades. His skin is rough and darkened, but probably not by sun. His head is shaved, but shows a shadow at the edge of his baldness. He seems to lead with his head, which he sticks out to emphasise every voluminous word he speaks.

At one point there seems to be a lull in the conversation. Mr Ears picks up one of the wet cloth runners from the bar and throws it at Sandra. He thinks it’s very funny and nudges his neighbour in the ribs as he flings. Sandra is hardly amused. She tries to say, “Please don’t do that” just as he raises his arm, but she is only half way through the “Please” by the time he has flung it. To say that she is not amused is to understate the utter contempt that fills her eyes. But still, it’s a living.

Her son has been helping out with the washing up in the under-staffed kitchen. He is fourteen, at least that is what Sandra immediately chooses to tell us the moment he appears. She gravitates towards our end of the albeit small bar, placing the maximum distance between herself and the group that we now learn includes her husband, Mr Ears. Darren, the son, is just like her, the same shape, but with brown, not black hair. I sense Jenny concluding that the mother’s is dyed. Darren is still very much his mother’s boy, not yet his father’s threat. Knowing that she will have to put the place to rights tonight before she leaves, she has him wipe down the tables and stack the stools, destined to be unused this evening. Mr Ears, he of the triangular head and key-in-keyhole ears, smiles a mild pride a little as he drinks whisky chasers at some rate.

He orders a round of drinks for himself and his mates. He almost theatrically flips open his softened leatherette wallet and then pulls a face deigning surprise when he finds it empty. Sandra’s expression is both knowing and tired as she, reluctantly, scowling when she turns her back to him, writes out an IOU and places it in the till. It’s no doubt in her own name. She takes some pence in ‘change’ from the chit, which she offers and he pockets, rattling the coins against a set of keys in his deep pockets, as if ensuring that it has fallen to the bottom. A few minutes later he needs another refill costing eighty-five pence, but he produces only twenty-five from his pocket. Sandra makes up the rest from her purse, her lips pressing a silent curse as she operates the till.

A minute later Hilary appears from the kitchen. She hands Sandra a brown envelope. A slight smile confirms that these are wages, perhaps for the week. Sandra immediately extracts a note, places it in the till and retrieves her IOU, which, after attracting her husband’s attention, she pointedly tears into small pieces and ditches into an ashtray, an ashtray that she will have to clean out later. Mr Ears barks and growls a little, maybe sensing a put down in front of his mates, but later we are told that really wants to have the paper intact so he can read the amount to check that Sandra’s not fiddling him and arranging to keep something for herself. “Never trust people in business,” he says, loudly to his mate, “but never vote against them!” He laughs.

Sue follows Hilary from the kitchen. We know her name immediately because Sandra greets her, as if she has not seen her for weeks. Her white, side-buttoned jacket identifies her as the person who grilled our fish. She is a very good cook. We enjoyed our sole, I tell her. She says thank you, but then immediately delivers a bout of self-deprecation, apologising for the fact that she has never had any training. Her words are like a magnet for the other women, who immediately move to our end of the bar, as far from the locals as it gets. Sue then tells us of a coffee fudge cake that prompted one guest to propose to her. The ladies laugh, including my Jenny. Her husband, however, was the one who taught her how to cook fish. It’s all in the salt. After all, they live in salt water, don’t they?

Perhaps because we are strangers, Sue wants to talk. Clearly the locals at the other end would not be interested in the fact that she often has to cook for thirty people in a kitchen that’s the size of a dog kennel. Hilary, Sue and Sandra are clearly not happy with their lot. Hilary, especially, seems tense and dispirited as Sue tries to explain the facilities at the back. When she invites us through the bar to inspect where she works, Hilary looks perturbed, even threatened. “Look”, says Sue, with a wave of an arm, “there’s one piddling microwave, a gas cooker from year dot and a freezer that wouldn’t service a family of four. And when the place is full of trippers, I have to do twenty bar meals an hour at lunchtime.”

Hilary ushers us back the right side of the bar There’s not much work around here, she tells us. Having us visit the kitchen was clearly more than her job was worth, so she changes the subject. “It’s nice here, but I feel that life is passing me by. I’m a city girl. I’m from Walsall. I’m not used to living in a small place like this. I envy you two. I’d really like to be in London, but my boyfriend is a herdsman and there’s no call for them in Mayfair.”

But she does make sure we register that Sue is slaving away in the kitchen for next to nothing. And the owner who often supervises rang in to say that he would not be around to lend a hand this evening because he was sick, when she knew full well that in fact he and his wife had been invited out to dinner by the Cowan’s at their farm.

“At this time of year, when the sky is clear and the air is fresh and the weather’s nice, you would think that this is a really nice place to live. But just go and have a look at the backs of these places. Go round the side and have a look. Give me a modern bungalow with double glazing and central heating any day. They are falling to bits. In winter you can have the heating going full blast and still have a gale blowing in around the window frame. On nights like those I’m almost glad to be working here. At least it’s warm.” The words were qualified by a nod towards the regulars. “But then you have to sit here and put up with the rubbish that lot talk about all evening… Honestly in winter, in the dark nights, there are times when you wish you were anywhere apart from here. And this is the best work in the village, despite the fact that the owners never want to put any money into the place. And the people from here can’t get it into their heads that it’s in their own interest to invest in the place, to make it more attractive.. But then you get up in the morning and the sun is shining and the sky is blue and you can see across to Lundy Island and you walk the dogs across the cliff top and everything seems fine. I don’t know.”

It was then that she changed. An overlooked duty resurfaced from a forgotten cell. A moment later she returned from the reception. She had another brown envelope for Sandra, who smiled as she took it. The word ‘bonus’ could be heard, but there was a question mark of sorts. By then we had decided to go to bed and, as we left our bar stools, we only had time to bid her goodnight.

The following morning we walked around again. There really wasn’t anywhere to go, except where we had already been. You could go up or down. Up was back to the car. Down was to the sea. We chose down. Up would come later. We walked along the harbour wall, past the dilapidated clapperboards to look at the flat calm lying below a grey but light sky There was a buzzard, an intruder, screaming as it was shepherded away by pecking gulls. We watched the pursuit for ten minutes or more as the local nesters made sure that the unwanted foreigner was well and truly escorted off their patch.

As we stepped off the rampart and back onto the shingle, a British Telecom van appeared from the town. We assumed that he must have special dispensation to drive the main street, a privilege afforded only to the corporate. At the bottom the driver sped to a halt and then engaged reverse. This was clearly only a change of direction, there being nowhere along the main street to turn once you had entered the village. A group of men to our right noticed the noise and broke off from their idiotic task of trying to move a rusty old hulk across the shingle with makeshift crowbars. It was the hint of wheel-spin that attracted them Here was someone who did not know the place. Here was potential profit. A hint of forward movement in the van dissolved into an engine race as the rear end sank as far as the body into the loose stones.

Crowbars discarded, the blokes surrounded their captive in a matter of seconds. “He’s got that well and truly…,” grumbled Mr Ears, who was one of the first to arrive. He recognised us from the bar and actually spoke directly to us, but the words were for the van driver’s benefit. He scratched his head a few times as his mates appeared. They too mumbled as they crouched to inspect the depth of the problem. The van driver and his companion had got out of their seats, their doors scraping into the shingle. Mr Ears then said quite a lot, but I caught only an odd word. He scratched his head again. “It really isn’t my day today,” he said to me as he passed.

After a few minutes our little crowd still surrounded the prey when the Land Rover appeared. Mr Ears told us that it normally does the ferrying back to the car park for those trippers who can’t bring themselves to walk back up the hill. “It doubles as a tow truck for the boats,” he said. He tied a small thin rope to the tow bar and then selected a suitable place to attach it to the Telecom van. A whistle to the Land Rover produced a crawl. The rope broke, of course. Mr Ears scratched his head again. He was clearly having to work hard today. A mate went off to find a heavier rope, which was duly attached. The Land Rover growled as the van driver raised a scream from his engine. There was a splutter at the back end of his van and then it was free. There was a round of applause. A note was offered and Mr Ears took it, but clearly expressed a belief that it should be bigger. “The things I have to do to earn a living,” he said as he shuffled past the two of us, pulling and rewinding the rope that probably belonged to someone else. As British Telecom whined its way up the hill in second gear, we set off towards the Old Hotel to retrieve our bags, check out and get under way. Jenny and I shared a joke about Mr Ears, referring to elbows and arseholes.

Sandra was waiting for us. She had a cloth bag in her right hand and her son’s hand in her left. He really was a very young fourteen. Clasped by her thumb, and pressed against her son’s grasped fingers was a brown envelope, presumably the envelope that Hilary had passed to her just as we left the bar. The envelope was torn and a single sheet of paper flapped loose. Jenny stayed with her while I paid the bill and got our bags.

“She wants a lift into town,” said Jenny when I returned. She got the sack. They have accused her of taking money from the till. She’s leaving.” I cast a glance back down the hill, but there was no-one in sight. Mr Ears was still down there, earning, when the four of us, all strangers now, set off towards the car.

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