RED SAILS IN THE MORNING

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February 11, 2014 by Whispering Smith

Mercedes Robins walked the length of the pier and standing beside the vandalised twenty-pence-in-the-slot telescope, looked out to sea.  Halfway between where she was standing and the grey three mile horizon, a crimson-sailed Brighton crabber made hard going against the falling tide. The boat yawed and lurched from tack to tack in an effort to catch the shifting westerly in her ragged sail. Mercedes could just about make out the stooped, oil skinned figure of  Harry  Thorn as the wiry man dodged forward  to loose a sheet and then back to the lashed tiller, releasing it and ducking his blonde head under the boom as  the Boston took on a new tack. She could almost but not quite hear the creak of greased wood upon wood and the slap of the rag as the slack of the sail filled, pulling the boat towards the bar and the river’s narrow mouth. The boat crossed the bar, yawed and straightened, then, clear of the blustering wind and safe within the lee of the high jetty, the sail flapped uselessly against the mast. A sudden puff of diesel smoke and a stream of water spluttering from a pipe in the boat’s black hull told her that Harry had reluctantly engaged the wing engine to assist the empty red sail.

            Harry looked up, saw her and waved. Mercedes did not acknowledge the raised hand or the bow and salute that followed it.

            Typical arrogant, self-opinionated male to think he could scare her half to death by going out in such filthy weather and then, with a casual flip of the hand and a gallant gesture, worm his way back into her good books. She turned her back on Harry Thorn, the Boston and the river and concentrated her attention on the rocky beach where several small children were playing with a large dead eel, tossing it at each other with bits of stick and squealing with delight each time the dead fish brushed against one or the other of them.

            Children, dead eels and Harry Thorn, she thought, that just about summed up her day, her week and perhaps, even her life.

            Mercedes kept her  back towards the river until the popping of the engine’s exhaust had faded to a distant mutter then, without a backward glance she set off down  the narrow road, past the funfair and the old oyster pond heading for the town centre and a Costa coffee or a brandy, or maybe both.  Harry would spend some time in the pub  beside the gravel wharf drinking a midday pint and, no doubt, flirting with the female bar staff, before wandering home to plonk himself down in  front of the computer. Harry wrote westerns, cowboy books with an earning capacity that barely kept their old car on the road, let alone paid any of the household bills. Those, as always, would be left for her to deal with from her earnings and the paltry sum Harry raised from fish sales.

            Away from the seafront and the salt wind the air was warmer, the spring sun gaining in confidence as April turned into May with the promise of summer reflected in the shop windows. Sandals, beach wear, cotton dresses, sun hats, buckets and spades and sun cream adverts each vied for the early seaside visitor’s attention.  It was lunch time and the precinct was all but deserted.  Mercedes gazed into an estate agent’s window not seeing the flattering pictures of the town’s houses from which the photographer had deliberately excluded a dilapidated next door house or carefully cropped a picture so as to exclude a weed-infested garden and broken fence. She stared at her reflection, uncertain as to just what course of action she should best take.  

             At thirty-three Mercedes was an auburn-haired, handsome young woman with a strong face, full lips and dark brown eyes. She was well figured, tall, taller than Harry Thorn, with a straight back and an easy roll to her hips when she walked.

            The reflection screwed its face up at her.

            “Whichever way you go, Mercy, it could be messy.”

            Mercedes swung around sharply, her face overtaking her long hair which, still windswept from the sea breeze, swept across her eyes. She brushed it aside with a flick of her hand and stared at the grey-haired woman who was standing behind her.           

            “Excuse me?” Mercedes said.

            The woman looked surprised, glanced over her own shoulder and then back at Mercedes suddenly seeming to realise she was being addressed by the unkempt young woman in the blue wool slacks and green, waxed Barbour jacket. Then she turned away and made off up the High Street, her flat leather heels beating her retreat.

            Mercedes stared at the departing figure of the elderly woman and then looked to her right and to her left, there was no one there.  Opposite to where she was standing were two wooden benches, their legs set in the pavement, resting places for weary shoppers, but more often occupied by the town’s midday alcoholics.  A man in a dirty  blue pin-striped suit was seated at one end of one bench, an empty can of  Carlsberg lager  clutched between his narrow knees, the open end pointing downwards, dribbling the last of the man’s morning pick-me-up onto the chequered stonework. She sat down at the end of the second bench. It had been a long time since anyone had dared to call her Mercy. Oh no, she thought, not you again, not now after all of these years.

            “Oh my God no,” Mercedes said aloud, her shoulders slumping.

            The drunk looked up startled, looked around him and not seeing a deity of any kind dropped his chin back onto his grubby shirt-front.

            “Come on, Mercy, it’s been a long time since last we talked, haven’t you missed me?”

            “Not a lot,” Mercedes said aloud, a slight hoarseness in her voice, and then to herself, “not a lot at all, in fact I thought I had grown out of talking to myself.”

            “Ten years, it’s ten years since you talked to you.”

            “Almost exactly.”

            “To the very day.”

            “Look,” Mercedes said to herself, “I really don’t need this at the moment I’ve already got one crisis on my hands and me talking to myself in the middle of town, even if no one else can hear me, is not  the direction I need to be going.”

            There was a rattling sound and the man in the blue pin-stripe suit rolled sideways tipping the can onto the concrete where it rolled out into the walkway.  Mercedes paused her conversation to observe the man, wondering if he was going to roll off the seat and hurt himself. Then she remembered Harry telling her that drunks seldom hurt themselves when they fell over.

            “And old Harry Thorn ought to know about things like that, Mercy, he’d know if anyone would.”

            “Harry doesn’t drink that much, he’s out a lot but he never has more than a two pints. I’ve never seen him fall down.”

            “Humph.”

            “Humph? What’s humph about it?”

            “You work, he plays, he shirks, you pay, get a life, Mercy, you don’t need the one you have.”

            “He works quite hard really. He fishes and he writes. It’s a hard life being alone all day writing, he needs to unwind.”

            “An hour ago you would have strangled him for going out in that damned boat, now you’re painting pretty pictures of him. Poor old Harry sitting at home alone writing those daft cowboy books  that only come out in big print and which only old people read.”

            “I read them.”

            “Would you if he didn’t expect you to?”

            “Well, maybe no.”

            “No maybes about it, of course you wouldn’t.”

            Mercedes heard the church clock chime the hour, two o’clock. The precinct was beginning to come alive again as the cafes and public houses disgorged shoppers to shop and workers to work.  Two women moved to sit down next to her but the reclining inebriate snored and coughed and they moved on staring at Mercedes, no doubt curious, she thought, at her apparent coolness in the presence of such an obvious threat to the life and limb of any respectable woman.

            “Why are you sitting here, why not go straight home and pack your bags? Harry will be in the pub for at least another hour supposedly seeking inspiration. Wondering how his latest square-jawed hero can ride the badmen down and win the girl in the final chapter without too much bloodshed to frighten away the old rocking chair cowboys who read it.”

            “I can’t believe he went out this morning in that weather, no other boats were out. I begged him not to go and he just laughed.”

            “Harry laughs a great deal.”

            “Yes he does, doesn’t he.”

            “You were saying you begged him not to go and he laughed at you?”

            “Yes. I worried myself sick all morning and then went down to the pier dreading hearing  the sound of the lifeboat roaring out and there he was, bouncing about like a cork in a whirlpool. Up and down, wet and bedraggled with a big stupid grin on his face. Standing there waving and saluting like some old salt.”

            “The way I see it, we have two clear choices.”

            “We?”

            “All right  then, you have two clear choices. You can go home and pack or you can cut up his Levi’s and tell him he has to change his ways. He has to marry you, stay home more, get a proper job, help out in the house and stop flirting with the  bar staff at the pub. Oh yes, and what about a family before it’s too late? Neither of you are spring chicken any more.”

            “Marriage? Children? A proper job? Harry?”

            “Unbelievable isn’t it? You’re right, best go home and pack, after all, he didn’t even remember today is your birthday.”

            “It is?”

            “Ten years ago today on your birthday you met Harry Thorn and stopped talking to me, to yourself.  It hurt.”

            “My birthday?”

            “And no cards, no flowers  no presents, no special candlelit dinner. Things change with time. Romance is dead, best go home and pack, start again with a younger man.”

            “Ten years ago, my birthday, our first  dinner together. Lobster, a big fresh red lobster  set on a bed of  crisp salad. My favourite meal. He stole my heart with that dead crustacean.”

            “And what did he do with it when he had it? He broke it is what he did.”

            “Not quite, he bent it out of shape a bit but he didn’t break it, not yet at any rate.”

            “Are you all right, miss, you look a bit pale?”

            The bearded community policeman bending down in front of her.

            “Yes, I’m fine thanks,  just having a think, officer, enjoying the sunshine.”

            “OK then.” He moved to the snoring man on the next bench, started to bend over, seemed to think better of it and continued his soft-shoed stroll down the precinct, pausing to look in the book shop window and casually  glancing back over his shoulder at Mercedes. She waved to him and he walked on turning the corner by Boots the Chemist.

            “Face  Harry  out,  verbal him for frightening you this morning, and then cut up his Levi’s.”

            “No.”

            “Whatever, Mercy, but do something for goodness sake.”

            “You keep out of it, keep quiet.”

            “As a mouse, Mercy, I promise.”

            Mercedes looked at her watch. It was two-thirty. She had been talking to herself for half an hour. They locked people up for that.  She got to her feet, checked that her purse was in her  jacket pocket and set off for the hairdresser. She had her mane  washed, trimmed and the few grey hairs coloured out, and then spent  an hour in the library with a favourite book.  At five o’clock she walked back along the High Street, through the alleyway and around to the front of their old flint cottage which stood  quietly aloof from the modern houses of the riverside terrace. She took a deep breath by the front door, turned her key in the  lock and stepped into the gloom of the hallway.  She pushed open the dining-room door and  stopped dead in her tracks.

            The  oak dining-table was laid with their best china. There were candles, four of them flickering in the draft of the open door, wine in an ice bucket and  fresh flowers  –  red roses –  in the crystal vase.  Early vinyl Sinatra was smooching from the retro record player and Harry Thorn, dressed in a crumpled dinner jacket complete with an askew green bow tie, was sitting in one of the wheel-back dining chairs.  In the centre of the table was a huge platter of salad the last resting place of two magnificent red lobsters.

            “Happy birthday, darling.”

            Mercedes stared at the lobsters. “I feel under-dressed.”

            “Your bath is run, madam.”

            “Afterwards I think.”

            “On a full stomach?”

            “On a very full stomach. Where on earth did you get such beauties?”

            “None to be found in the town so I went out and cleared the ferryman’s pots.”

            “He didn’t mind?”

            “He wished me well but would not go out himself.”

            “That was why you went out in that foul weather this morning, for lobsters?”

            “Tell him now.”

            “As a mouse, you promised.”

            “I beg your pardon, Merc,” Harry said.

            “Sorry, Harry, I was thinking aloud.”

            “Seduced by a pair of lobsters?”

            “Where would I find another man who would risk his very life to give me a lobster for supper on my birthday?”

            “Where would he find someone as caring as you to put up with him?”

            “We’re a team then, we deserve each other.”

            “And what about marriage and the children you wanted.”

            Mercedes smiled at Harry Thorn across the table, he raised his glass to her, toasted her with his pale blue eyes.  She blew him a kiss and speared a morsel of rich white lobster meat.

            “Almost certainly, Mercedes, almost certainly.”

           

             

Chris Adam Smith – Copyright 2014

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