Ken revisits some of his favourite haunts and colorfully reminisces about his youth spent in Pulton. Then he furthers his blossoming romance, only to have his good spirits shredded when his adversary shows their true colours; and claws. Reeling from a ghastly revelation, he fights to recover.
It was one of those blindingly dazzling and gloriously crisp February mornings that lured you into thinking that Spring was not only on its way, but was just around the corner, even though it hadn't actually thought about leaving the house yet. Sure, it was biting cold and the air was almost painful to inhale, but out of the shade you could feel a hint of warmth. I was fully togged up though – still without a new jacket, but I had recently taken the plunge and invested in a scarf. No doubt it was that purchase that triggered the improvement in the weather. Maybe I would procure that new coat so we could immediately bask in the resulting heatwave.
There wasn't a great deal of activity on the quay at this hour with few places open for business but across the channel, the cargo yard was bucking the trend, bustling aplenty as a modest army of workers and their companion cranes went about unloading what was quite a sizeable ship; probably the largest I'd ever seen moored up there. You see the thing with Pulton Harbour wasn't the size, it was the depth. As harbour's went, it was proper vast, something like fifteen square miles I believe, and some claimed it to be the world's largest natural harbour. Now, New Zealand and California boasted their own candidates for that title but Pultonites were deaf to such assertions as both competitors had been extended by man-made engineering works so it was fiercely argued that neither could be classed as "natural". Similar to when stunningly attractive celebrities heralded as pure, earth-grown beauties immediately lose their shine when its discovered that they've "had some work done". Whereas Pulton was implant free. But like many of those artificially enhanced luminaries, it's abundantly shallow. Back in the day, the main channel was dredged from the harbour entrance to the quay, which granted entry and egress to the roll-on, roll-off ferries that serviced ports in France and Spain together with some largish cargo ships, but there just wasn't sufficient draft for the really big boys. The dredging also unearthed an Iron Age Log boat. I remembered it from my many many school outings to "The Quay Museum" and the unmatched optimism and awe with which the tour guide presented it to the group each time. Young kids tended not to get overly excited by a piece of wood that resembled a well-gnawed Twiglet. Even if it was ten-foot-long and over 2000 years old. But few could argue the harbour wasn't one of nature's finest treasures and this morning it was positively radiant. The sun was bouncing off the water with such intensity I couldn't look directly at it. I added sunglasses to my shopping list.
Once again, I'd been up and about uncharacteristically early, keen to dive into whatever today offered up. Seeing such a glorious day limbering up outside my window I'd been tempted to head out first thing, but I'd resisted it's pull and made myself complete the on-line shopping marathon I'd kicked off last night. I'd deployed my credit card so frequently I could for the first time ever recall the full card number and expiration date at will. Even the last three numbers on the back too. Having purchased half the internet, it was time to treat myself to some fresh air and nostalgia. Pat had already arrived by the time I got downstairs and was enjoying a brew in the kitchen. 'You there! Peasant! Stop loitering and get to work! Else I'll be forced to torch your cottage and run your family off my estate.'
'My humble apologies your lordship, spare me the rod I beg you. Us working types don't know no better nor nuffink.' with which he took a slurp of tea whilst slowly raising the 'V' sign with his other hand.
'How's it going mate?'
'All good me old.' He rummaged in his pocket then passed me a scrap of paper. 'Here's the new price; it's got all the new bits your man said, plus the extra pair of hands I could do with.'
'Looks sound to me, thanks mate.' And it did look sound — he was clearly doing me and my finances a huge favour. Yes, it was more, but not significantly more. 'When can your other guy start?'
'Day after tomorrow when the gate comes.'
'Great. Okay bud; I'll let you crack on.'
J.D. was in the bar, hunched over his newspaper. Halo pottered over to say hi to me then returned to her basket and snoring once she tired of the petting.
'Morning J.D. — what's new in the world?'
'The American High Court has rejected Donald Trump's sanity plea, and someone in Bristol claims to have witnessed a BMW 5 Series driver using their indicators.'
'Never! What a world we live in.' Then a thought from yesterday popped into my head. 'Oh hey — what do you know about "Westall's Deli"?'
'The new shop on the High Street you mean?'
'Yep that's the one. So they're coming, not going?'
‘Apparently. Some cheese store serving overpriced coffee, hefty steak pies with pastry leaves on the top and chutney in jars with gingham hats; that kind of thing I'd imagine. You'd gain a dress-size just walking past the place. Opening soon I've heard. Tourists will bloody love it.'
My joy at the confirmation of imminent cheese excess was then abruptly half-squished by the thought that "Westall's" was potentially another competitor I'd have to contend with in the locale. Also J.D. seemed strangely sour on the subject. Maybe he'd had a bad experience with cheese. Or steak. Or gingham. Ah well. 'Great. Can't have too many cholesterol dealers in the neighbourhood. Right well, lovely morning out there so I think I'll go for a mosey.'
'I've got your number in case we get swamped.'
'Okay. If I answer with an accent, it just means I'm debriefing a suspect and can't drop my cover.'
I did get a grin with that one. 'Roger that.'
And then I was out the door.
Crossing the road, I was forced into a half-sprint to avoid being mown down by a helmet on a bike. Bloody cyclists — the silent killers. Even those with bells fitted rarely used them; too embarrassed by the lame "Ding!" they produced I'd imagine. Get yourself an air horn you healthy, planet-friendly, pedalist freaks. Otherwise, the quayside was mostly pedestrian friendly, with broad block-paved walkways either side of the road, populated with palm trees and an equivalent number of brightly coloured kiosks selling tickets for the various harbour tours and other excursions on offer. Broadsea Island was a popular destination; a location I seemed to remember as retaining major historic significance due to camping being invented there in the early 1900's. It was also where Marconi successfully tested the first iPad, or something like that. I'd experienced camping several times but had never really seen the point in it, other than as some sort of masochistic exercise that reminded you how comfortable and convenient your kitchen, bed and toilet were back home. Alternatively, you could charter a fishing boat and go and try to catch your lunch. Or you could book a dinner cruise where someone better-qualified would catch it for you instead. In addition to Broadsea, there were a handful of islands in the harbour that you could visit; some of which The National Trust would let you walk about on, and others which the private owners or the oil and gas companies wouldn't. You could also venture outside the harbour and take in the splendour of The Jurassic Coast. It used to just be known as 'the coast' but underwent some swift re-badging to cash in on the release of a certain film. I'm sure it did wonders for tourism but I felt for all the kids that went to visit the area off the back of that campaign, all flushed with excitement as they pictured the many and varied dinosaurs they'd soon witness roaming the landscape. Or maybe anticipating some sort of safari park equivalent, only with a T-Rex eating the car's radio aerial and peeing through the sunroof instead of Macaque monkeys. But then they'd arrive to find it was all just stones; none of which they were allowed to collect and take home. Maybe the ever-present threats of rock falls and cliff landslides might pep things up a bit for them. So; lots to do and lots to see, though not all excursions ran all year round — there wasn't much demand for open-deck romantic dinners for two when there was a force eleven gale blowing; in November. Also, the harbour itself could get surprisingly choppy. Few forgot the annual Summer works outing I went along to during my time working for the local bank. The event was a harbour tour with barbecue, disco and bar. The sea cut up so rough that nobody really ate or danced, needing to keep at least one hand clamped to some fixture or other to stop themselves from getting thrown across the room or even worse, hurled from the boat into the churning water. Everyone still managed to get quite drunk though. I think they made as few trips to the bar as possible but grabbed the strongest possible brew that they could when they got there. Thankfully, we didn't sink, and apart from the odd light dusting of vomit everyone returned unscathed, but the trip was referred to as "The Perfect Storm" thereafter.
I took several deep breaths of the sharp sea air — holy hell; bracing or what. I still couldn't quite believe my good fortune waking up to this vista every single day. Looking back to the pub, I once again appreciated how proudly she stood out from the buildings whose company she shared, especially with her red tiles reflecting the eager sunlight. To the left of her was the four-storey whiteness of what was once a merchant's warehouse, now a greeting card and gift shop with offices or apartments above. To the right stood a bland, much more modern office block which really didn't fit the scene at all. Why the hell wasn’t Boat Bitch strong-arming them into moving on instead of me? It looked a far better fit for her intended purpose than the pub. I'd assumed it was commercial office premises but couldn't recall ever seeing anyone come or go from the place. It was mostly white painted and also towered over the pub, helping to give the impression that "The Pulton Arms" was being subtly but forcefully squeezed between her monumental neighbours until she decided to just up and leave in the face of such intimidation. Narrow alleys ran in between most of the buildings on the quay that led to various back streets and footpaths which took you deeper into town. Few of these alleys ran straight, as the older buildings in particular were anything but regular in shape and the new arrivals had been designed to fill the gaps in between, which they did with mixed success. If you saw an aerial photo of the quay, it looked like a jigsaw completed by someone who’d ran out of patience and rather than finding the right pieces, they’d just pounded other bits into the gaps to make them sort of fit. Next to the characterless office block sat one of the grand old gentleman of the quay; five storeys of what was also once a merchant's warehouse. This now suffered the indignity of serving as some sort of mega gift shop that somehow managed to stock enough tat to fill several floors. When I was a kid it used to be an aquarium; I remember walking through the dim narrow corridors and getting all hyped, not knowing what I'd find in the next tank along. Even the empty ones were a buzz — you didn't know if they really were vacant or if you were about to be scared witless by some creature you hadn't spotted yet launching itself at your face and making you squeal. The aquarium sadly went out of business many years ago, with the building then following its natural course, next evolving into a model railway museum with a night club above — what else. I was pretty sure I'd been there once sometime in the 90's: I remembered making great progress with a girl sporting an impressive perm who reminded me of Bonnie Tyler which was no bad thing. Then the 'mate' I was with said she reminded him of John McEnroe off of the 80's, after which I couldn't get past the image.
And then next door you had "Coasters": and Jess. After a lot of thought, I'd decided not to drop in and see her today. True, I had a clear invite to visit (I thought) but I didn't want to come across as stiflingly keen or obsessive. I'd never have the ego to play hard to get, but the last thing I wanted to do was scare her off. So as tempting as it was, I kept my restraint whilst hoping to hell she was working tomorrow. Although I was the other side of the road, I still walked past her windows smartish so I looked like I had somewhere to be urgently, just in case she happened be to looking out. I didn't want her thinking I wasn't interested either. Psycho stalker or aloof "player" — it's a tricky line to walk.
Strolling on down the quay, I divided my attention between the bright seascape of the harbour, and the mix of businesses and accommodation that made up the view to my left, all the while trying to suppress the bile that rose each time the abominable apartment block came into view as I swung between the two aspects. A little further down I passed the arcade, and I could just make out the outline of the long-removed lettering on the wall that used to spell out 'Quay Amusements'. That signage hadn't been superseded by anything else and the place appeared deserted. What would it become I wondered — another bar or apartments? Pick any disused building and toss a coin: I wasn't sure there was a third option these days. In my very early teens, the arcade used to be my second home, that I shared with a group of similar-minded friends who also hadn't discovered beer or girls yet. But then Iron Maiden changed all that in a single evening.
At that time, I was at my core, a video games nerd, and any and every piece of change I could muster got ploughed into those vivid and noisy machines that offered entertainment and escapism in equal measure. Habitually, when asked what I’d like for my Birthday or Christmas present, my answer was always 'Money please!' Once received, I would then spend several flush and flushed hours gradually parting with that cash. Then I'd trudge home feeling rather empty, having not even kept sufficient funds back for bus fare. I never gambled — that was for losers: instead I was the shrewd one, merrily stuffing my coins into some device that guaranteed zero financial return on my investment. Then one night I went to see 'The Maiden' at the Arts Centre with my mate Rich. We lived metal in those days, though I had broader interests too. I'd get the piss taken out of me at school for having both AC/DC and Ultravox albums poking out of my school bag. Rich tolerated my perversion even though he didn't share such appetites — he'd wear a Metallica t-shirt under his school shirt every day just to stay 'on message'. So we did the gig, and with rosy cheeks and ringing ears we hit the street. Now usually, I'd head down to grab a few minutes of video game fix at the arcade but then something life-altering happened.
Rich said 'Fancy a beer?'
After two hours of listening to music at 100 decibels plus, my immediate response was 'WHAT?!'
Don't get me wrong I'd had beer before (not at the gig — I tried but failed the ID challenge) and I'd attended several house parties where I'd sampled vodka and fallen over spectacularly, but being below the legal drinking age, we didn't really 'do' pubs. But seeing an opportunity to score some lad points, and being low on cash to feed the machines with, (those Iron Maiden tour t-shirts don't buy themselves) I thought why the heck not.
"LET'S GO SEE AUNT MADDY!"
I'm not sure Rich really heard or understood but he gave me the thumbs-up and I strode off looking like I had a plan and he seemed happy to follow. So we trundled down the High Street to the quay and into “The Pulton Arms”. Aunt Maddy was working (of course) and she let us have a shandy each while we chatted and argued about which were the highlights of the concert; generally enjoying feeling all grown-up. After that night I never went back to the arcade; pubs and beer just seemed way more interesting. I never fell out of love with 'The Maiden' though — they're still touring the globe and putting on a more energetic show than most bands a fraction of their age. May they live forever.
With the abominable apartments looming to my left, I looked to the water again, taking in the posh marina and its high-value occupants. This was the area of the quay where those with serious cash kept their beloved watercraft; all top-end sail boats and motor yachts. This wasn't just the domain of the moneyed; it was home to that peculiar strain of humanity — the yacht wankers. Yacht wankers don't just do yacht stuff; they live yacht stuff, even when they're not yachting. They dress in yachting clothing even when they're not yachting. All they talk about is yachting even when they're not yachting. Don't get me wrong, I loved being out on the water and on a hot sunny day, I would choose a boat trip over joining in the beach sardines game every time. But the next day I wouldn't walk into Tesco sporting a Captain's hat and a body warmer. I'd served a few such characters in the pub and had recognised some repeat offenders who appeared to live in the abominable apartments that overlooked the elite marina but they never discussed their (well-appointed) accommodation: just the yachting. I didn't think they were inherently bad sorts — just a breed that I had no way to really engage with. Because I wasn't a yacht wanker. They probably viewed me as similarly unfathomable which was fair enough: each to their own. There were a couple of immaculate, old-style, all-wood floating gin palaces moored up which I would have been interested in viewing up close but the marina was secured from the likes of me; only those with the appropriate yacht wanker credentials could walk those gilded pontoons. Us normal folk could only admire the shining vessels and their inhabitants from the quayside; and throw chips at them when they weren't looking. If the seagulls didn't catch them in mid-flight first which they mostly did; years of practice looting the hapless tourists you see.
As you left the apartments and the money pit marina behind you, you entered another world. The first sign of that transition was the intense fishy tang that walloped you in the nostrils — an indication that you were bordering the real Pulton Quay — the Fishermen's Quay. This was where Pulton's fishing fleet landed their catch which was then trucked off to local businesses and other destinations in the UK and on the Continent. Most of the fish got bought up by the nearby restaurants and bars but shellfish were the main catch these days and they sold for a higher price elsewhere. So the sole, mullet and skate got snapped up by places like "Coasters", while the bulk of the mussels, crabs and cockles won a truck and lorry ride to foreign tables. Sadly, the overall catch had continued to shrink over the years, decimated by EU enforced quotas. There was something like ninety fishing boats now, down from eight hundred odd in the 90’s. Like many of the traditional Pulton trades, fishing had been out-paced by the tourism and leisure industries and was now roundly considered to be "on its arse". Piracy was another casualty — I couldn't remember the last time we’d raided a French or Spanish port. Possibly that's because the last time we did so, they retaliated and burned most of our town down. No sense of humour those Europeans. So as the fishing industry had declined, so had the Fishermen's Quay shrunk, now making up only a few hundred metres of the overall quay; the neglected tail end. But it was otherworldly none the less; as soon as you got that first whiff of what lay ahead you were transported back in time, only without the overacted mad scientist character and the dodgy 80's sports coupe. The first scene you came across was the designated area where the catch was landed, usually quiet and unoccupied as it was today. But come the hour, it exploded into colour and activity as the boats arrived and the fishermen and their buyers hastened to transfer the precious cargo into a waiting column of refrigerated trucks, while the sea birds went mental overhead. The scene really was something to behold. When I was very young, I remember catches used to be landed up and down the entire length of the quay, and the sounds and smells of the organised chaos were overwhelming. Whether vacant or in full swing, the landing area was always pretty pungent. And beyond that stood the old lifeboat station which now served as a museum, housing the original Pulton lifeboat that also heroically sailed as part of the Dunkirk “Little Ships” flotilla. A few more steps and you reached the fishermen's marina; no deluxe yachts or motorboats there, just the working craft that battled the elements and crippling euro-bureaucracy to bring home the goods. Beached on shore lay rows of tenders in a variety of colours and states of repair, together with a haphazard assortment of larger boats undergoing maintenance, the backdrop to which was a similarly jumbled collection of fishermen's cottages. And fishing paraphernalia was everywhere; in the maintenance yard, on the quayside and even stashed in the cottage gardens — discarded trawls, dredges and other nets, with pots, pallets and crates stacked up in all available corners. The entire scene was a world away from the modern apartment-blocked, palm tree be-decked environment just a few hundred yards up the road. And it was fabulous.
Later, as I hit the main stretch again, I noticed the ship was still moored up across the channel, now with a full deck so presumably stocked up for the return trip to some Continental destination. Depending on tides and other things I didn't understand, the cargo ships would sometimes moor overnight and sail the next day and we'd get some interesting visitors in the pub as a result. Often they'd have no English and we'd have no Albanian, Polish, Norwegian or Klingon, so communication mainly consisted of pointing at things and shouting. And I'd swear some of those guys were high as kites sometimes, or already three sheets to the wind when we opened up at lunchtime. I guess if you weren't tasked with steering the ship, there wasn't much else to do on a long voyage other than get wasted and practice your knots.
"Coasters" came into view and my thoughts turned from multi-cultural seafaring to Jess. I reminded myself that I was not going to visit her today and picked up my pace whilst inwardly reciting a 'No Coasters!' mantra and keeping my eyes down as I walked. I was not going to blow things by coming across as a smitten schoolboy who would send her a handmade Valentine's card every day ('No Coasters!'). Just a few more hours and it would be tomorrow and then a visit would be well-received, whilst communicating none of the sweaty urgency that it would if I walked in now ('No Coasters!'). Plus, I was all puffed, rouged and windswept so now was definitely not the time to present myself. Yep, good call. Back to the pub it is. Oh sod it....
'Hi Ken! Welcome back.'
'Hey Jess — I was passing so thought I'd drop in and say hi.'
'Glad you did. Bit slow today.'
Did that mean she was pleased to see me personally or just glad of the custom? Or maybe both? 'Yeah just needed to stretch my legs, and it's bloody lovely out there. And I can never resist the Fishermen's Quay; that's the real Pulton.'
'Ah-ha! I thought I picked up a waft of lobster pots.'
Dammit; really? 'Oh that's probably the aftershave. I'm a test pilot for Chanel in my spare time and they're just trialling a new range. I believe this one is "Halibut Pour Homme".'
'Ooh — any free samples going? I'm exhuming a dead body later and a quick spray of that would freshen things up no end.'
I must have looked distinctly crestfallen as she quickly followed up with 'I'm joking! I can't actually smell you at all, though if I could, I'm sure you'd smell divine. A mixture of jet fuel, freshly-sawn wood and the leather of a Formula 1 race-car driver's glove; or something like that I'd imagine.'
She laughed at her own joke and I couldn't help but join in. She was properly funny, and the laughter also obscured my relief at realising I didn't actually stink like Captain Birdseye's laundry basket. That said; as a Captain, I guess he wouldn't have been that hands-on with the fish. He probably wasn't even a real Captain, more likely just the spokesperson or figurehead for the brand. Also, would the Food Standards folks approve of a parrot in a prep area? Surely that must be a no-no hygiene-wise. I was much more mindful of those kind of issues since we started getting the kitchen up together.
'Sorry! Actually, I was hoping for Old Spice blended with WD-40 but I can live with your appraisal.'
'To be honest, if there's any fishy whiffs around here they'll be down to the tank needing cleaning.'
She pointed at the fish-tank behind her and I quietly scored myself a point for that not being the first thing I'd mentioned since I walked into the bar (for once). That being the case, I thought I could now discuss it with impunity. 'That's not your job is it? It's a monster.'
'No, thankfully. I think they have some other company maintain it and a guy comes in every other weekend. I only tend to work weekdays so I don't know for sure. What can I get you? House red perchance?'
'Lovely, thanks.' Having just come indoors after a vigorous walk in the chilly outdoors, I was now boiling up and probably more flushed than a toilet in a Tokyo youth hostel. So before my scorching face started melting nearby objects, I removed my jacket and scarf and dropped them on the bar.
‘What? Last time you said it would be on the house.’
‘Only if you stay here and talk to me. Sorry, I omitted the small print when I made the initial offer.' She leaned on the bar as she had the last time, intentionally breaching my airspace. I followed suit which brought us even closer. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail today, not hanging loosely as before. It occurred to me that she could shave it all off and cover her bald head in nothing but tattoos of flaming red-eyed skulls with daggers embedded in them and she'd still look irresistible. Ideally I'd never have to put that to the test mind. For a second, the impulse to lean further across the bar and kiss her right there flashed through me, but then one of her colleagues emerged from a back room carrying a rack full of glasses which he plonked loudly on the counter, jerking me back to sensible.
'Okay, deal. But if some other looker rocks up and offers to share her chips with me, I'm walking.'
She made a play of picking up a menu, scrutinising it then acted as if she was crossing something out on it. 'Looks like chips are off.' She dropped the menu then thankfully moved back into close proximity. 'So; now I have you, tell me everything. How's the pub doing?'
'The pub's great. I'm gradually clearing what appears to be about a century's worth of accumulated crap from my flat and we're refitting the kitchen so we can start doing food.'
'Oh, so you'll be the competition then? We'd best raise our game. Perhaps I shouldn't be flirting with the enemy.'
'You're flirting? I just thought you were bored to tears and decided I was marginally more engaging than the fish.'
'Well; the jury's still out on that one.' Unfortunately, at that point another customer appeared at the bar and she moved off to serve them. 'Scuse me a minute; I'll be back. Stay put: we have a deal remember.'
Actually by now she had a handful of punters waiting but that was actually fine. I had nowhere else to be and I felt things were going swimmingly. Conversation was flowing and she seemed keen to get to know me better. That said, I needed to find out if she was single or not; this was my highest priority. Not saying I wasn't up for the challenge if she wasn't, but it would be a major boost to my campaign if she was a free agent. There was no sign of a wedding or engagement ring. If anything, didn't the resolutely single ladies go full-on with the hand jewellery to indicate the opposite so as to deter unwanted attention? Okay I needed to know for sure. But how to obtain such vital information? Subtlety was paramount with this investigation — I'd lose major style points if I just blurted out 'So hey; got a boyfriend? If not, want one?' or something equally crass. Though the idea of dragging Pat down here and getting him to try the 'My mate fancies you.' approach I had filed as a viable option. As Jess continued to work her way through the customers further down the bar, I enjoyed my wine whilst running some lines through my head. And then I heard an unfamiliar yet somehow familiar voice at my shoulder.
'Mister Trickett. Well; if it isn't the accidental florist.'
Something was amiss, but I couldn't immediately put my finger on what. The sensation was akin to the odd time during my smoking days when I'd put a cigarette in my mouth the wrong way around and set light to the filter. There was the familiarity of the basic manoeuvre coupled with the unnerving feeling that something had gone terribly wrong but I just hadn't figured out what yet. I turned to see Boat Bitch.
Looking business-like and trim as before, her scarlet lipstick stood out boldy, but the porcelain skin had been exchanged for a glowing sun tan. At least I knew she'd received the flowers. And this time she didn't have her heavies with her.
'Angie! What a pleasure. Can I buy you a drink?'
'No thank you Mister Trickett, I'm not here to socialise with undesirables. If that was my main aim in life, I'd visit your pub more often.'
'Well don't be a stranger; drop by if you get tired of beating up school kids in the park and stealing their lunch money. Exhausting work I'm sure. I could rustle you up a Marmite bap and a Fanta.'
'A tempting offer indeed but I shall have to pass I'm afraid. My days are spent at work. You know; "work"? You're aware of the concept?'
'I did give it a go once; it wasn't really for me. So — you got my message? Are we all done with that nonsense with the pub?'
She moved closer and fixed me with a look overflowing with disdain — the sort of scorn I reserve for those that say things like 'Hashtag: horny!' or 'Stressed.com!' out loud.
'I did take delivery of a cheap-looking bouquet, presumably recycled from a local cemetery; from your Aunt's grave perhaps? There was a note attached which alas made no sense to me so it joined the flowers in the trash.' She then attempted a thin smile which manifested itself as an ugly grimace. Then she continued, grinding the words out like a Maître D' at a top-end restaurant forcing out an insincere welcome to a diner that turned up wearing jeans. 'Mister Trickett, I owe you an apology. Thus far I've obviously been talking much too fast and using too many long words for you to grasp the point I've been trying to get across. And that point is this: your pub is going to be my sales office whether you wish it or not. Is that a little clearer for you? If not, I could try flash cards or some simple sketches? Or build you another model?'
So, none of her actions to date had been pranks — they'd all been shots across my bows. She was seriously dampening my mood and another cheap jibe at Aunt Maddy's passing just wound me up all the more. That was her intention of course, but this time I decided to let my anger show, whilst matching her volume so as not to broadcast our conversation to a wider audience. 'Look; I don't know who the hell you think you are but trust me; your point is received loud and clear, and it can go sit in the bin with the flowers. As for long words, I'm not sure I can use anything much shorter than 'No' to get my point across. And if you vandalise my pub again, I'll get the police involved; okay?'
With that she dropped the fixed smile and curled her lip into a snarl but before she could respond, someone else intervened and sent my already strained thoughts scattering in a whole new range of directions. It was Jess.
'Hi Mum! What brings you here?'
Oh Christ no. No, no, no! This can't be; it really can't. Boat Bitch was still focussed intently on me but then she appeared to flick a mental switch and instantly changed states. She unclenched internally and turned to Jess with swiftly painted-on geniality.
'Hello dear! I had the lock changed in the conservatory after you told me you struggled with it when you were kind enough to look after Monty last week.' She rummaged in her handbag and handed Jess a key. 'Here's the new one; don't lose it.'
'Thanks Mum. You didn't have to come in though — I'd have picked it up sometime. Aren't we doing dinner Friday too?'
'Well I was local. I had to lunch a new client in town so thought I'd drop in and re-acquaint myself with your ah, work.' With which she scanned the bar with a look on her face which suggested she'd trodden in something noxious. 'And yes to Friday. I'll get Linda to book somewhere.'
I was all at sea; still seriously fired-up from my exchange with Boat Bitch but also reeling from the news that she and Jess were mother and daughter. There must have been any number of expressions playing themselves out across my face, one after another. Jess looked at me concerned.
'You okay Ken?' Then she looked to her mother who'd taken half a step back from me. 'Do you two know each other?'
Boat Bitch carried on as if none of the events of the last few minutes had ever transpired. 'No not at all. Just idle chit-chat whilst I was waiting for you to finish serving those other people.'
'Well, this is Ken. He's taken over "The Pulton Arms" just a few doors down. Ken, this is my mum Angelique. Her company makes the big boats just across the way.'
Boat Bitch didn't miss a beat. 'Really? How fabulous. Pleased to meet you Ken, and good luck with the pub. Great spot you've got there.' She reached out her hand; all fake charm and suppressed venom.
It felt like I hadn't spoken in days and I was still struggling to come to terms with this new God-awful turn of events. Because I simply couldn't think of anything else to do, I reached out and shook her hand. 'Pleased to meet you Angelique.' All the while fighting the urge to crush her fingers into splinters. Still unable to pluck a coherent next action from the selection still bouncing around my head, I went back to basics and drained my wine to steady myself. 'Could I trouble you for another Jess?'
'Of course. Same rules?' She beamed at me, clearly unaware of the undercurrent of conflict that her mother and I were caught up in.
'Yes of course.'
'Sorry, give me two ticks; these guys were first.' As soon as she moved away to serve the other customers, Boat Bitch swooped.
'How do you two know each other?'
'She works here. I come here. We talk. It's called social interaction: you wouldn't understand.'
'Oh I fully understand Mister Trickett. Now what you need to understand, is that my daughter is off-limits to the likes of you, should you be harbouring any interests in that direction. Alas she's an awful judge of character and in a moment of weakness she might well choose charity over common sense, but she's not for you trust me.' Then, after a sideways glance to confirm Jess was still otherwise occupied, she took a step forward and leaned in really close — close enough that I could see each individual wrinkle of her crow's feet. I also got hit by a waft of coconut and a breathy sample of her champagne lunch. She still spoke softly, but with so much embedded vitriol I felt as if she'd grabbed me by the throat and was punching the words into me. 'So one last time, just to be sure you're in no doubt. Your well-being and your half-arsed business aspirations do not interest me in the slightest. I don't care about you, your Aunt's legacy or your misguided dedication to crumbling bricks and mortar. I will acquire your pub: the only question is how broken and broke you will be before I take it from you. Am I finally getting through to you, you fucking retard?' This was practically hissed through clenched teeth and one of the nearby punters looked our way as if they thought they'd half-heard something awful; which they had.
It was now crystal clear — she meant business. Serious business. My first flash was anger, followed by an awareness of my surroundings, so didn’t give the rage full rein. Part of me was also reluctant to demonstrate she could push my buttons to the extent she desired. Mustering the sternest look that I was capable of, I leaned closer until our faces were only centimetres apart and whispered. 'Go jump in the sea you mad cow.' For a moment she looked as if she was going to fly at me. Even with the tan, her face was fully flushed as if she had so much pent-up fury within her, there was no means of venting it without triggering The End of Days. And then she checked herself and took a pace back, still with fists clenched. Then Jess appeared once again; the unknowing arbiter in the midst of our attrition.
'There you go Ken. Can I get you anything Mum?'
Boat Bitch took a deep breath then flicked her internal switch again, transitioning from Cruella de Vil to Mrs Doubtfire in a heartbeat. 'No thank you my dear, I must be getting along. I'll be in touch about Friday. Cheerio!' She turned to leave but stopped to face me, and in a tone as cold as her bed probably was, she simply said 'Goodbye Mister Trickett. I doubt our paths will cross again.' Then she left.
I took a large gulp from my freshly filled glass. Christ what an afternoon; I was struggling to process it all. So the object of my desires was the witch's offspring. The witch who I now knew to be genuinely hell-bent on my ruination. Shit. Shit squared in fact. I looked up to see Jess eyeing me curiously. Maybe she'd seen or heard more than I'd thought? Or perhaps she could hear me grinding my teeth in between mouthfuls of house red.
'Are you sure you two haven't met before? You seemed to have a lot to talk about. I like the name Trickett by the way.'
Careful Ken. It looks like she's no clue about you and her mother and there's no indication that she's inherited the Chief Bitch gene so don't screw up by spilling the beans. You can dwell on today’s proceedings later but for now, some normality please. Deep breath.
'No never. We were just passing the time of day; talking weather, tropical fish, local architecture. Stuff like that.'
'Well that's a first. All she usually talks about is her business; which celeb bought which boat, how blatantly they chatted her up, how awful their wife's outfit was. That kind of thing.'
'Do you get involved in the business? Are you being groomed to take it over one day perhaps?'
'God no. I had that conversation a long time ago when Dad was running the business. Although he built it up and wanted to pass it on to someone that would look after it, he knew it wasn't for me. I'm one of those airy-fairy creative sorts remember. Mum was, and is, keener to keep it in the family when she's finished her stint. She keeps saying I should get more involved and get busy having babies — I'm an only child you see so I'm the end of the family line as things stand. But apart from doing the odd bit of admin at the yard from time to time, I just focus on not becoming a successful artist.'
'So how did your mother come to be head honcho?' I kind of knew the answer to this from mine and Janine's research the other morning but wanted the inside scoop. I'd settled down some from my brush with said mother and wanted to find out as much as I could — knowledge is power and all that. And the wine was helping to unravel my twisted nerves, as was simply sharing the same space with Jess, whom I still couldn't quite believe was associated in any way with Boat Bitch.
'Dad passed away five years ago. He had a heart attack at the yard — he was always working too hard. He loved what he did and was always overdoing it. One night he didn't come home for dinner, which Mum insisted he always did if he wasn't entertaining clients. She called the yard. One of the security guys did his rounds and found him dead at his desk.'
She was leaning on the bar as was I. Instinctively I reached out and patted her arm. ‘How awful, so sorry.' I felt crappy for having asked the question in the first place.
She didn't flinch; just looked at me with slightly clouded eyes and a tight smile. 'It’s okay. He had a good innings, and a good outing I think; looking out his window at the boats he built. He wasn't actually my real Dad but he was to me. I never knew my Father; Mum says he fled the scene as soon as she fell pregnant with me and flatly refuses to discuss him any further. They never married. I do wonder if he was where I got my artistic streak from as Mum isn't like that at all. So, I got a new Dad when I was eight and he never treated me as anything other than his own daughter. Mum had been working at SharpCrest for a few years before their paths crossed. They met at some swanky corporate do and I think Dad was a bit smitten and she was a real beauty so he gave her a try on the Sales team. Turned out she was bloody good at it so her career took off, as did her relationship with Dad. By the time he left us she was pretty much responsible for all the day to day stuff running the company. When he died, she threw herself into the business even more, determined to take over the world it seems. It's like she's always been angry with him for leaving her and uses that anger to fuel everything she does. She didn't used to have such a hard edge to her but now it's almost always there. Sometimes I have to remind her that she's talking to her daughter, not berating someone on her payroll for getting their timesheet wrong.'
Something approaching sympathy for Boat Bitch started to permeate my thoughts but I quickly expunged it. Losing a loved one doesn't give you carte blanche to behave appallingly: no sir. 'I guess there must be considerable "benefits" though? Your own mansion and all the lavish speedboats you could wish for?'
'Ah I see your game Mister Trickett.' She assumed a mock authoritative tone, sounded spookily like her mother. 'So you're fishing for some rich totty that can open the door to a globe-trotting lifestyle, chasing the sun in swish yachts while getting coked off your tits, or someone else's, then racing jet-skis. For shame!' Without asking, she refilled my glass then rested on the bar again, looking me in the eye. 'I'm neither rich nor totty Ken. Other than my pocket money when I was a kid, I've had no handouts. Dad never believed in money that wasn't earned. Mum’s always trying to fund me in some way or other but I prefer to make my own way. And my mansion is a small flat just off the High Street. So; sorry to disappoint.'
Adrenaline, alcohol and a rush of defiance teamed up with an attraction so strong it could arm-wrestle The Rock and I said: 'Can I take you to dinner sometime?'