Des Brady stepped off the bus and looked around him. His destination was St Peren, a small seaside town on the Cornish coast. It would do meantime. A cosy sort of place. Ancient stone cottages along a higgledy-piggledy main street leading down to a sheltered shingle beach. Out of season, now, of course, even better - no hordes of tourists about. Priority one - find accommodation. Priority two - find a job. Des dragged his heavy wheeled suitcase behind him. A man in a trilby and a Gannex overcoat passed him.
‘Excuse me,’ said Des, ‘is there anywhere nearby that does decent bed and breakfast?’
The stranger fingered his chin.
‘You could try the Jacksons’ place,’ he said, ‘ Montague Street, back of here. They call it ‘Brackenhurst’ for some reason.’
‘Thank you,’ said Des. The stranger nodded and walked away.
Brackenhurst was a fairly large, detached bungalow in the middle of a row of similar dwellings. It was more modern than the stone houses in the main street, and its exterior walls were stuccoed white. Des rang the bell and waited. A woman in her early thirties opened the door. Her hands were covered in flour, for she was baking. A wisp of hair fell onto her face, and she pushed it back with a floury hand, depositing some of the white stuff onto her brow.
‘Yes?’ she said. She seemed flustered.
‘Mrs Jackson?’ said Des.
‘I understand you do bed and breakfast. Have you a room free just now?’
‘I might have. How long would you need it for?’
‘Three or four months.’
Mrs Jackson’s eyes lit up. Three or four months at thirty pounds a night - why, that was…a fair bit of money.
‘You’d better come in.’
He has nice manners. Nice looking, too. Tall, slim, and, thankfully, clean-shaven. Doubt if he has tattoos, either.Don’t think he’ll eat too much. Looks like a cleric, not one of those rotten sales reps who often stay here.
Mrs Jackson showed Des to his room. It was large, modern and comfortable, with a double bed covered by a duvet adorned with a pattern of roses, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and an escritoire.
‘It was my grandfather’s,’ said Mrs Jackson, noticing how interested Des seemed to be in it.
‘It’s lovely,’ he said.
‘Do you like the room?’
‘Felicity, this room is ideal. I’ll take it. How much is it?’
‘Thirty pounds a night.’
Des fished in his back pocket and brought out a wad of notes.
‘Here’s a week in advance.’
‘Thank you. Can you please register? It’s for fire precautions. The book’s in the hall. I have to finish these fruit scones for the church fete on Saturday.’
Des duly signed the register and retired to his room. Mrs Jackson put the scones in the oven and went to look at the register. Des Brady, nice name. Suits him. Lovely handwriting. Look at the slope of those t’s. Educated, no doubt.
Tom Jackson arrived home from his work at five. Felicity had his dinner ready.
‘We’ve someone staying,’ she said.
‘A nice young man.’
‘Late twenties, I should say.’
Tom looked suspiciously at her and she coloured.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Has he paid you anything?’
‘A week in advance.’
Tom forked chips into his mouth and grunted his acquiescence.
Felicity looked across the table at him and thought:
He’s an awful boor, a bully, I don’t know why I put up with him. Married twelve years and I must suffer his frequent bad moods and temper. Lynn gave her husband the boot and he is so much nicer than Tom.
Lynn Maddison is Felicity’s best friend.
Des took a stroll that evening, down to the beach. The October air was brisk and fresh, and he turned up his coat collar against the breeze. He loved the smell of the sea and the way your eyes tingled when the wind blew spray into your face. The seaside meant freedom, escape, enlightenment, not like the constant hustle and bustle of Croydon. Des had money, but he wanted to work at something entirely different. Software engineering was tedious, and he was sick of it, sick of Cranston and the rest of those loafers and sick of his apartment in a faceless block of flats. He quit after one too many arguments with the egregious Cranston.
‘I’m sick of your moaning. I’m off to the pub.’
‘Go on then. Go on and meet all your cronies. Drink your six pints and stagger home, only don’t come anywhere near me.’
Des listened intently as Tom and Felicity fought when Des returned to Brackenhurst. He shrugged his shoulders and went into his room. Presently he heard the front door slam. That wasn’t all. He distinctly heard sobbing. He left his room and peeped through the door of the lounge. Felicity sat at the table, head resting on her arms, crying softly.
‘Are you alright, Felicity?’
She looked up. Tears had run down her cheeks and taken with them most of her mascara so she looked like a panda.
‘I’ve been slicing onions. Theymake my eyes water.’
‘Oh, that’s alright, then. Goodnight.’
‘So, you want this job, behind the bar?’
‘No. I’m a software engineer.’
‘I fix glitches in computer software programs.’
The landlord of the White Hart pondered for a few moments.
‘That makes you brainy, right?’
‘Well, I’m not stupid.’
‘Dealing with change and that?’
‘Should be fine.’
‘When can you start?’
‘As soon as you like.’
Saturday dawned crisp and bright. Des started work and the landlord gave him some basic training.
‘Them’s the beer pumps. You put a glass under that and pull the handle. Make sure you leave a decent head on the beer. There’s a tea-towel for drying the glasses. That’s the till. You press the right button, the till opens, and you put the money in and take out the change.’
‘What about the prices?’
‘You’ll have to learn ‘em off by heart. Here’s a price list. If anyone asks for a strange cocktail or something, charge them the whisky and orange price and double it.’
‘Is that likely?’
‘What, in St Peren? No chance.’
With that, the landlord swept out, leaving Des to fend for himself.
Des soon became accustomed to his job and did it with aplomb, becoming a favourite with the customers because he was charming, polite and self-deprecating.
Three weeks after he started, on a wild and rainy evening, two young women walked into the pub, shaking themselves like damp terriers and strolled up to the bar.
‘Felicity,’ said Des, in surprise.
‘Hello, Des, this is Lynn Maddison. Lynn, this is Des Brady. He’s staying with us.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ Lynn purred.
‘What can I get you both?’
‘Mine’s a port and lemon,’ said Felicity.
‘I’ll have an Irish Mist,’ said Lynn.
‘A what?’ asked Des.
‘Irish whiskey, coffee, mixed herbs and clover honey.’
‘Sorry, we don’t have any of those at all.’
‘Gin and tonic, then.’
Des poured their drinks and took their money. The pair sat down on a bench near the window.
‘You were right,’ said Lynn, ‘he is a dish.’
‘I never said that.’
‘You didn’t have to. I saw the way you looked at him.’
‘He’s just a paying customer, that’s all.’
‘You sound like a call-girl.’
‘Oh, Lynn.’ Felicity laughed. She liked the irreverence and wit of her intelligent, beautiful friend.
‘Is he married? In a relationship?’ asked Lynn.
‘No. He’s single. He quit his job and came to St Peren to escape.’
‘Escape from what?’
‘Ah. That explains it.’
Des observed the pair of them from behind the bar. It was a quiet evening, and he had ample time to do so.
Lynn’s a looker, I’ll grant you that. Hair like a raven’s wing, long eyelashes, just the right amount of makeup, slender as a reed, perfectly matching clothes. Felicity might not be as pretty, but her personality shines like a newly minted coin. They’re both alluring in their different ways but…’
Lynn said: ‘My shout, Felicity. Same again?’
Felicity nodded. Lynn wandered over to the bar, clutching two empty glasses.
‘Same again, Des.’
Lynn saw Felicity home and returned to her own flat. It was empty, as usual, and she was lonely.
Meanwhile, Des finished clearing up, washing the table-tops and drying the glasses before going back to Brackenhurst. He let himself in with his key and stood for a moment in the hall.
Felicity stood at the lounge door, head slightly tilted to one side, like an inquisitive sparrow.
‘Tom isn’t back yet. He’ll be drunk again.’
‘He doesn’t hurt you, does he?’
For an answer, Felicity rolled up her sleeve. Four livid fingermarks were visible on her forearm.
‘He did that?’
Des lifted the hand of her bruised arm to his lips and kissed it.
Felicity moved towards him, but then broke away in fright.
‘Quick,’ she said, ‘I hear him on the drive. Go to your room. If he catches us here, God knows what he’ll do to us.’
Des nodded and they both made for their respective rooms.
The next morning at eleven ‘o’ clock, the telephone rang in the hall. Felicity was out, buying scotch eggs for lunch, so Des answered it. He picked up the receiver cautiously, as if it might give him an electric shock.
‘Is that Des?’
‘Do you know who this is?’
‘We met last night in the White Hart.’
‘Are you doing anything right now?’ asked Lynn.
‘I was just going to make some coffee.’
‘Never mind that. Felicity says you’re a computer expert.’
‘I understand computers, although I’m more of a software engineer.’
‘I think there’s something wrong with my washboard,’ said Lynn.
‘Washboard? Oh, you mean “motherboard.”’
‘That's it. Can you come round?’
Lynn gave him her address, an apartment in a new block at the other end of town, and instructions as to how to get there. Des set off on a very chilly November morning. There was a hint of snow in the air.
He buzzed the entryphone at the main door.
‘Come in,’ said a sultry voice over the intercom, and the door clicked open. Lynn was waiting for him at the front door. She was clad in a gold and purple kimono and her long black hair was tied back with a red ribbon. She showed Des into the lounge. On a pine table stood a newish desktop computer. Des sat at the table and regarded the machine.
‘I can’t close it down,’ Lynn said, ‘the beastly thing won’t let me.’
Des held down the stop button for the regulation ten seconds but the computer showed no signs of wanting to switch itself off. Instead, a message flashed across the screen. Des smiled.
‘It’s got nothing to do with your motherboard, Lynn. There’s some malware in there or an app that’s gone haywire, preventing shutdown. All we need to do is restore the factory settings. Have you backed everything up?’
‘Yes, on these little silver things.’
‘If you say so.’
Within seconds, Des had restored the computer to its rightful status and closed it down.
‘You shouldn’t have any more trouble with it.’
He was aware that Lynn was in very close proximity to him, and the smell of her perfume was intoxicating.
‘Thanks ever so much, Des. You will stay to lunch, won’t you? I’ve some home-made leek and potato soup and a decent wine.’
‘Well, Felicity is expecting…’
‘Never mind, Felicity, Des, she’ll understand. Besides, that odious husband of hers is going back for his lunch.’
‘In that case…’
‘Good. I’ll pour the wine now. Sit yourself down on the sofa. I’ll be with you in a moment.’
Des sat down on a luxurious settee and waited till Lynn returned with two fluted wine glasses and a bottle and set them down on a coffee table. She sat next to him.
‘Say when,’ she said, starting to pour.
‘When,’ said Des before she’d filled half the glass. Lynn kept on pouring and handed it to him, full to overflowing.
‘Slainte,’ she said, raising her glass.
‘Cheers,’ he replied.
‘Des,’ said Lynn.
‘Felicity says you’re single.’
‘And you’re here to rediscover yourself.’
‘And you’re staying in St Peren for a few months?’
Des wondered where all of this was leading. He didn’t have long to wait to find out.
‘Des, I’m divorced, you know.’
‘I threw him out. He was ever so boring.’
‘Well, I’m a bit bor…’
‘And since he’s gone, I’ve been lonely. None of the relationships I’ve had have worked out. The men around here are so…’
‘That’s it, in a nutshell.’
Des looked at his watch.
‘Gosh, Lynn, look at the time. I’d better be…’
‘But you, Des - you’re different. You’re sweet, gentle and clever.’
‘Not really. I…’
‘And handsome. I’ve never seen eyes that were bluer.’
She shook her head and edged closer to him.
The telephone rang.
‘Drat,’ said Lynn, and went into her bedroom to answer it. Des shot away like a formula one racing driver, out the front door and along the street at ninety miles an hour.
‘He’s in the kitchen and in a foul mood,’ said Felicity when Des returned to Brackenhurst, ‘I told him.’
‘Told him what?’
‘That I want to be with you.’
Des stared at Felicity’s earnest, tear-streaked face and saw how desperate she must have been to invent such a story. He realised action was needed. He strode into the kitchen. Tom glowered at him.
‘So, you’re the bum who’s been having it off with my wife.’
‘What of it?’
‘You don’t deny it?’
‘Why should I? You wouldn’t believe me anyway.’
‘Do you know what I’m going to do with you?’ said Tom, face flushed redder than a house-brick.
‘Do tell,’ said Des.
Tom came rushing across the kitchen at him, roaring like a bull. Des knew several key martial arts moves and used the spinning back elbow strike on Tom’s jaw as Tom lunged at him.
‘Gaw,’ gurgled Tom as he fell to the ground, poleaxed.
Felicity joined Des.
‘Oh, Des, you’ve killed him.’
‘Regrettably not. However, he will have a sore head when he comes to.’
She grasped his hand.
‘Oh, Des, what’s going to happen to me now? He’ll murder me.’
‘Go and pack a suitcase, Felicity. It’s time to move on. I hear Little Sterring’s fine in the winter.’
She hurried away to pack suitcases for them both.
The telephone rang.
‘Get that, would you, please, Des?’
‘Hello. St Peren’s Dog Home.’
‘Des. Stop playing the fool. It’s Lynn. I want you to take me away from here. I hear Little Sterring’s fine in the winter.’
© R T Hardwick