An Outing: Part One
“Will.... Do you think that nuns miss out by not getting married?”
I glance in the rear-view mirror and see her face framed between Lizzie’s and Ian’s in the back. It’s a serious face and she wants a serious answer, as any child would. Shirley, though, is fifty-six.
Chantelle, who’s the escort with me today, looks up from her phone, smirking.
“What kind of question is that, Shirley?”
I catch the look on Shirley’s face. Similar to the look I’d give, probably. Being caught out for doing something naughty. Or for doing something wrong again. That look.
“It’s ju-just a question, Chantelle. And I was asking Will.”
Yeah, I think. Good for you, girl!
Chantelle goes back to her phone. “No need to get a strop on.”
Shirley's eyes shift back to me, expectantly.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘miss out’, Shirley. You know the saying… what you’ve never had, you never miss. I mean, you’d never miss your can of Guinness in the evening if you’d never had it, would you.”
Her eyes widen. “Yes I would.”
Chantelle’s back in the game.
“How would you? You can’t miss something you’ve never had. It’s commonsense.”
Once again, the look from Shirley. A sharpness to it this time, too. She's probably thinking the same I am, in her own way. Chantelle’s alright. She does her job. Not much patience or understanding though. And she knows everything, of course. As I thought I did, too, when I was her age.
“I think Shirley was just having a joke. Isn't that right, Shirley?”
She brightens again. “Y-yes,” she says. Then she turns to look out at the passing street. Her expression, with her big hazel eyes and deep wrinkles is a wonderful contradiction of innocent wisdom. Hers is a tragic case. She was perfectly alright in her younger days. She had a clerical job in a hospital. One night, on her way home, she was attacked on a tube station - raped, hit over the head with a hammer and left for dead. She became pregnant from the rape, but the baby miscarried. All of that, plus the brain injury, led to a colossal breakdown from which she never fully recovered. When she first came to the centre, she kept to herself and didn’t say much for a long time. Now, you can hardly stop her.
Another light bulb goes on in her head.
“And... And Will?”
“Do you think that I've missed out by never getting married?”
I wait for a comment. But Chantelle's caught up on Instagram or something.
“I can’t answer that, can I, Shirley.”
“Because I’m not you. I don’t know.”
She gives that one some thought. Then she leans forwards. “Are you married, Will?”
“Not any more, no.”
We’re approaching a pelican crossing, and the lights change from green to amber. And I realise, far too late, that I’ve said more than I should.
“You - You mean you’re divorced?”
I glance up at the mirror again. It catches me off-guard – that emphasis. She goes to a Catholic church, though I’m not sure she completely understands it all now. Or maybe that's my presumption.
Chantelle’s there ahead of me this time, sharp as a shard of glass.
"Shirley - you shouldn't ask personal questions."
Shirley slumps back in her seat.
"I'm s-sorry, Will," she says.
"That's alright. Don't worry about it. It doesn't bother me."
I pull the minibus up at the crossing, then turn properly to check everyone. They've all been remarkably quiet, despite the buzz of the trip out. Shirley puts her hand over her mouth and begins to cackle in her own strange, mischievous way. Lizzie fiddles with her handbag, smacking her lips. Ralph peers at me over the top of his glasses, then pokes out his tongue. It curls down his chin like a plump, pink fish. I wink at him.
"Watch it, sunshine!"
"Zunzhine!" Ian echoes from the back, pointing out of the window and up at the sky. There's a tiny gob of dribble in his beard.
Ralph laughs. I turn back as a woman is crossing in front of us. I can't see her face, but something about her catches me off-guard. Lucy, I think... though it isn't, of course. It's the hair that does it. The wavy bob. The coppery flicker of it in the sunlight. She has a similar way of walking, too: shoulders set, head down, as if she knows precisely where she's going and intends to get there. She has a small child strapped to her back in one of those papoose things. The child looks at me and smiles, pointing a finger. I pull a face and point my finger in return. I feel a sudden kick against the bottom of my seat. Ralph.
"What's your problem, buddy-boy?"
"Mun finger mun thumb
mun arm mun leg
"Keep moooving!" I sing, and he cracks a laugh.
As if on cue, the lights change again. The woman reaches the other side and turns away. The child, though, swings its head and continues to look at me. I release the handbrake and pull forward.
"I don't suppose marriage suits everyone," Shirley says, quietly - almost to herself.
I catch sight of the woman and child in the mirror as they reach the corner. Then they're gone.
"That's right," I say. At the same time, I feel sad that she'll never have the experience. I feel sad at her having missed out on so much else. I wonder, though, if she realises those things.
What you never had...
"You won't catch me doing it, anyway," Chantelle says. "I don't see the point. If you love someone, that's all that matters."
I give her a sideways look.
"Sounds like a plan," I say.
And then we're just listening to the radio. Adele shouting Hello from the other side, and no one replying.
I turn left and head down towards the beach road. Suddenly, the ocean opens up before us.
"There's the sea!" Shirley cries. Her eyes look like they might burst out of her head.
"Zeeee!" Ian repeats, rocking excitedly. He's a big lad, and the bus shakes with the movement.
"Stop rocking so hard, Ian," Chantelle says.
"Cunt," he replies.
Shirley is apoplectic. "D-D-D-Don't say that word."
I cough to cover myself.
"He didn't say that word. It just sounds like it."
"Yes, you can, Ian," Chantelle says. "No such word as 'can't."
"Cunt," he says again. He stops, though. Sometimes I wonder if it is dysarthria. Maybe he's simply saying what he thinks. I like that idea.
I drive slowly along the busy part of the beach. The jetty. The arcades. The ice cream parlours and fast-food joints. Pizza. Pie and Mash. Fish and Chips. People everywhere, out in the sun. Tattoos. Phones. Purple necks and shoulders. Screaming kids.
We pass the clock tower and the promenade gardens. A line of B & Bs. The Viking is open and a couple of old gents are sitting out front, by their mobility scooters, with their pints and cigarettes. The same ones I see when I'm cycling to work in the morning. There are worse ways of seeing out your days. Dad would have thought so, too. Which is how he did it.
The sun's always over the yardarm somewhere in the world, boy, as he used to say.
Beyond them, through the doors, the place looks busy. People perched at tables, their drinks back-lit - amber, nut-brown, ruby, silver. The lunchtime crowd. Drink and a meal. Maybe just drink. It looks comfortable. Apart from all the crowds, that is. Still... I can always find a quiet corner on my day off.
I keep going until we get to the quieter stretch, up near the sailing club. We pass my block and I point up to my window.
"That's where I live," I say.
They all look up there.
"Is that where you live, Will?" says Shirley.
"That's what I just said."
I can make out the things on my window sill. The tea-light lantern. The binoculars. An empty wine bottle. Marilyn, in the flat below, has her washing out on the balcony. A row of huge floral knickers, like pornographic bunting. A bra that looks like a sling-shot for rugby balls.
"Is it nice?"
"It's alright. It does me."
"Awesome view," says Chantelle. I assume she doesn't mean the washing. "What's the rent like?"
"Cheap. My landlord's decent. He's not out to make money. It needs work, but I'm not complaining."
I smile, quietly. I suppose I am. In that respect, anyway. I've got that place. My bolt-hole by the sea. Me and Tinker, my rescue tabby. There's Marilyn, too. She's like me - lives alone and prefers it that way. Single, middle-aged, Marilyn. We're neighbourly, but that's as far as it goes. She's got a few loose slates - though she probably thinks the same about me. She's rather too fond of quoting the Old Testament. She thinks tranquilisers should be mandatory for kids, to keep them quiet. Sometimes, I hear wailing noises coming from her flat. I figure it's best not to get involved.
We pass the beach huts. Older folk slumped in deck chairs. Kids playing in the sand around the steps. Just like little houses, I always think - numbers on the doors, tiny windows with pastel curtains, porches. One even has a fake chimney. You could live in one of those, at a pinch - if there was nothing else. Dad did once. Squatted it, anyway. I glimpse a face at a window in passing - a woman reaching a cup down from a cupboard. Like people playing at houses. A child's laughter trills through the air. I close my window and turn up the radio. Pharrell Williams is Happy, which means we all are.
Further along, the road begins to slope up towards the cliffs. On a grassy bank there, like a giant discarded harlequin hat, sits The Blackjack Café. Our regular place.
"Tea for me, please," Lizzie pipes up. "Two sugars. You buy it for me, please. Lunch we having. When?"
It's just after half-eleven. It's a bit earlier than they'd normally have it, but I pull up anyway. It's a treat, after all.
"How about now, Lizzie?"
Beaming, she grabs at her seat belt clip. She only has about six teeth left in her head, and she can't have false ones. Not the way she is. She's bad enough with her glasses, without sticking a set of dentures in her mouth.
"Now, yes please. Like sandwiches. What sandwiches? Wait and see. White bread, please. You get it for me. Don't like brown bread. Yeuck!"
Chantelle puts her phone away and sweeps her hand back through her ginger curls.
"That sounds like a plan", she says. "I'm starving."
I switch off and turn to look at them again - four strange, wonderful faces, gaping at me expectantly. I make the 'eat' sign to Ian.
"Lunchtime, mate. Hungry?"
"Bugger," he says.
"What do you want with it?"
"Tits," he says.
"Burger and chips you shall have, my man!"
He starts rocking again. Ralph puts his head up, tilting it from side to side as he looks at me. His eyes bulge behind his bottle-bottom glasses.
"Ham sandwiches, mate?"
He nods approval.
Shirley wide-eyes me, raising her hand.
"Are we... are we just having a laugh, Will?"
"I think so, Shirley. Yeah... we're just having a laugh."
I open my door, then glance back at her as she covers her mouth with her hand.
"Because it's better than crying, love."