by Rose McGrath
“Good luck, Jim boy!”
“Bye, you fat bastard,” said Jim muttering under his breath. “I won’t be back.”
“Bye, you fat bastard,” said Jim muttering under his breath. “I won’t be back.”
He took a deep breath, stood up straight and walked slowly out of the main gate, hoping his dad might be there to meet him. He thought about taking one last glance back and putting two fingers up to the establishment but instead he quickened his step and followed the flow of visitors out towards the one solitary bus stop at the end of the road.
Clutching his white plastic bag tight to his chest, he searched into the pockets of his long shabby coat for some coins for the bus. He jumped when he heard the sounds of car doors banging and children being dragged away crying for their fathers that were banged up. He witnessed the drained faces of the wives and girlfriends all dolled up in short skirts and high heel shoes tottering around as they looked back at the high security brick walls that kept their loved ones from them. Trying to read the times of the buses through the graffiti, Jim saw the reflection of yellow flames dancing, as the wives and girlfriends huddled together to puff their fags in the evening air.
Once the bus finally arrived, it slowly weaved in and out of the small narrow lanes then climbed further and further up into the hills. Tears wet his cheeks as he breathed in the fresh crisp air and saw brown and gold leaves falling from the trees, covering the footpaths and lanes. As he got closer to his home he looked out for a landmark, something that would remind him of happier times. One by one the passengers got off the bus. The thin grey-haired driver glared at him in his mirror. He kept his head down avoiding eye contact. He felt a knot in his stomach when he saw the sign for Hartland’s End.
He didn’t take the path to the village straight away; instead he followed the well-trodden path to the left that led down to the pebble beach that was hidden away between the rocks. He picked up pebbles and threw them into the sea. Thinking back to the times he had played on the beach, exploring the old smugglers’ caves. He thought of the mud pies he’d made sitting in the sand and the laughter from his friends as they played hide-and-seek.
The Black Boy pub where he used to drink was still there, but boards covered the windows now. Walking closer towards the familiar row of cottages, he noticed all but one of them was derelict. Smoke was billowing out from the blackened chimney. Gathering his thoughts, he paused at the door. He raised his hand to the knocker, then pulled away when he heard a radio playing. His mouth was dry, and his heart was beating fast. He pulled out a bottle of pills from his bag and quickly swallowed one. He walked away then paused and looked back at the dim light shining in the window.
“Tomorrow, I’ll go tomorrow,” he said.
Pulling out a piece of paper from his probation officer, Jim reluctantly made his way to the café at the crossroads.
He’d started drinking the odd glass of cider in his teens. Then moved onto nicking booze from his parents’ sideboard. A pint at the local pub with friends often turned into an all-night drinking session.
One night he was coming back from town, Carman was on his mind; he couldn’t understand why she dumped him. He didn’t see the outline of the lady at first, his lights blinded her. She stood motionless in the middle of the road not knowing which way to turn. Then there was a thump and her body was tossed up in the air like a rag doll thrown from a great height.
The flashing blue lights and haunting sounds of the sirens along the crossroads were still reminders of that day. It all happened so quickly he told the policeman, as he staggered out of his car onto the road. The blood was seeping from her head as the paramedics tried to resuscitate her broken body. He remembered the policeman shouting at him when he smelt alcohol on his breath, his friends looking on in disbelief. He had ended someone’s life in a few short minutes.
As he saw the café, guilt from that terrible night returned, a reminder of what he had done.
“For God’s sake, why here?” he said.
He stubbed out his fag. His hands were shaking as he opened the door to the café. Luckily for Jim the café had been taken over by new people. He hoped his past was behind him.
“I brought you a coffee and a piece of cake. You’re on your break, right?” said Lucy who was one of the waitresses.
“Oh, thanks, that’s kind of you.”
“Can I sit here, or would you prefer to be on your own?”
“No that’s okay, if you want.”
“If I want. Well, you know how to make a girl feel welcome.”
“I didn’t mean ...,” said Jim embarrassed.
“It’s okay, I won’t take offence? Oh, by the way, I heard you giving that American couple directions to Hartland point. Are you from around here?”
“I was born here!” said Jim snapping at her.
“Okay, I was only asking. I’m sure things haven’t changed that much, right?”
“Wouldn’t know, I’ve been away for a long time.”
“Really, where have you been – travelling?”
“Here and there.”
“You must have been to some wonderful places, soaking up the culture and the awesome food. I’ve always wanted to travel. Never got any money though. I’d go to Australia, so I could go for a surf on Bondi Beach. Riding the waves. They’d be unbelievable,” said Lucy looking out the window at the surfers.
“Do it, just go, live your dream, otherwise it can be snatched away from you.”
“Yea maybe I will sometime soon. It would be nice to have someone to travel with, who’s seen a bit of the world,” she said looking at him with a smile.
“That’s a strange thing to say snatched away from you. What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Don’t mind me,” said Jim moving away quickly.
“My break's over, I need to go, bye.”
Jim often watched her surfing. He could see her from the kitchen window at the back of the café. Her athletic body gliding along the surface of the waves as she travelled further out to sea. Every now and then he would look up trying to get a glimpse of her frame moving majestically in the sea, as he knew how treacherous the sea could be. With her wild sweeping hair and welcoming smile, she would wave to him when she returned to the shore. With a sense of relief, he would greet her, and they would walk along the beach together.
Weeks turned into months, then, he found himself singing along to songs on the radio and even dancing around the café kitchen. When she was on a shift, he’d find the courage to stop hiding in the kitchen and help her clear the tables.
They would go on long hikes, take a picnic, and visit places he remembered. One day when they were hiking up the Pike, to stop her falling he grabbed her hand pulled her towards him and kissed her tenderly, the numbness was leaving him, he felt alive and could hope for a future with Lucy. He was putting the past behind him but had one last thing to do.
Jim took the path and stopped at the white cottage. With a determination he knocked at the door.
“Who’s there?” the old man called out from behind the door.
“Jim, Jim who?”
“Dad it’s me,” said Jim softly. Slowly a crack in the door appeared.
“You’d better come in then.”
The once 6ft 4 tall man that Jim remembered was now a small, frail man. He pointed to a chair by the fire and barked at Jim to sit down.
“They treat you all right there?” said his dad smoking his pipe.
“It was like Butlins; what do you think?”
“I wanted to visit, but your mum, she wouldn’t go, too ashamed.”
“But you could have come. I spent years waiting?”
“Your mum said I should have pulled you up more. Gave you too much freedom.”
“I was young, wrapped up in myself, I didn’t think of the consequences. I’m sorry.”
His father just nodded then took a puff on his pipe.
“When you went to prison, we were treated as outcasts. We were shunned by the people that used to be our friends. Our family had lived here for generations, but it didn’t matter, we were outcasts, boy. Your mum, she blamed herself for lending you the money that night for a drink.”
“It wasn’t her fault, Dad, I kept on until she gave me some money. It was my fault not hers.”
“People don’t forget here; they just look for any reason to pull you down.”
“I wouldn’t be driven out of my home. Your mum she lost her job at the post office. Then they said she wasn’t needed anymore at the fisherman’s mission. Her so called friends crossed over the road if they saw us coming. It was harder for your mum; I was out all day working. She just gave up.”
“Why didn’t you let me know?”
“What could you have done from there!”
“I could have talked to her, told her I loved her. I missed her so much, Dad.”
“If you hadn’t been so pig-headed things would have been different.”
“I know, I know, Dad.”
“Get us a bottle of whisky out of the sideboard. We’ll have a drink, for the return of the prodigal son.”
“You’ll take a drink with me,” he said banging his hand on the sideboard. "It’s the good stuff, boy. I put it away for when you came home.”
“Here, Dad, I can’t.”
“Suit yourself, I’ll not waste good whisky.”
“I used to love going out on the boat with you and your crew.”
“You could barely walk when I took you.Your little eyes used to light up when we pulled the nets in.”
“I was always scared we would drag in a sea monster or an octopus!”
“Our nets were full of sea bass, red mullet and cod.”
“We could fish as much as we wanted then. Nowadays there’s bloody quotas.”
Toby, Jim’s dad took a gulp of his whisky, and started to sing a fisherman’s shanty.
Come all you young sailor men, listen to me, I’ll sing you a song of a fish in the sea, Jim joined in where he could remember the words.
After the song, Jim stood up and gave his father a hug.
Toby, finished the bottle of whisky and fell asleep in the chair. As Jim got up to leave, he reached over and kissed him on the forehead. Covering him up with a blanket, he saw the wooden tugboat sitting on the shelf that he made when he was in 3rd form. Next to his father’s chair he found an old tin stuffed full of pictures of him growing up. There had been no contact for the past fifteen years, but at least he knew they hadn’t forgotten him. That night he slept well, relieved that this day was finally over.
As the summer approached the café got busier. Jim left the kitchen and helped Lucy take orders. When they were locking up one evening Lucy asked him to meet her folks. He couldn’t say no as it meant a lot to her.
As they entered the house with the blue door next to the harbourmaster’s office, he became agitated. His breathing became heavy, and he felt sick. He’d been here before with his parents a long time ago. He remembered the blue and white ship's anchor lying in the front garden. Sitting in the lounge waiting to meet Lucy’s parents he glanced up at a picture on the mantlepiece. There with pride of place was a picture of Jean, the lady he hit with his car.
He was a different person to the man with the long brown hair that sat opposite them in the courtroom. Would they be able to forgive him; how could they? As the voices got closer his breathing became heavier, he saw his chance and slipped out through the patio doors.
Packing his bag, he thought of Lucy and what might have been.
She deserves better he thought as he pushed an envelope for her under the café door.
“Forgive me,” he said as he took one last glance back at Hartland’s End.