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ALREADY BROUGHT OUT THE STACKS OF CHAIRS and loungers and had crouched down to write prices on my battered old chalkboard: specially hiked prices, starting today. I always like to get set up early, before any customers show, especially if it’s going to be busy.
I heard the crunch of pebbles underfoot and looked up
to see a man in a mauve shirt, open at the collar and with the sleeves rolled
up, with loose khaki trousers, sandals and a wide-brimmed straw hat.
“Looks like it’s going to be a scorcher,” he said.
I stood up. We were about the same height, or maybe I was a bit taller. “Looks that way,” I said.
I’d seen his face before, in a photograph.
He looked at the chalkboard: The End of the Pier Show – £5 for an hour, or £20 for the day. He pushed his hat a little further back on his head and said, “That’s pretty steep.”
“By the hour, maybe, but the daily rate’s not so bad. How often do you get to see something like this?”
The machinery had arrived overnight. Industrial cranes and ships, for now. Lorries and work crews would follow. It started today, out at sea. Soon, Brighton’s West Pier would be cleared away.
“You’ll make a killing,” he said. “I’ll have a deckchair. For the day.”
I took his money and went back to setting up. Pretty soon I had more customers and the stack of notes in my pocket was building up nicely. I kept an eye on Straw Hat, though. He set up his chair facing the ruins of the pier, put his rucksack down beside him and started to read a newspaper.
A couple of hours later,
the beach was heaving. Lots of families; lots of beer drinkers. I’d
rented out everything I had, though a few chairs and loungers had been taken
by the hour and I’d have to collect them or collect more money in due
course. I’d just reclaimed a deckchair and I contrived to walk back
toward my stand on a route that brought me to Mr Straw Hat.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
He looked up at me, having to shade his eyes a little. “What’s that?”
“Enjoying the show?”
The cranes had started on the pier section furthest out to sea. Already the roof structure of the old concert hall had been hoisted away, and a few girders stacked up on the deck of one of the ships.
“It’s kind of sad,” he said wearily.
I knelt down and looked in the direction he was looking. “Yeah, it is. But then, the pier always made me feel that way, because it reminds me of somewhere else. And when it’s all gone, well I don’t know what’s going to happen to...”
I left the sentence unfinished.
“To what?” he said.
“Oh nothing. It’s a long story.”
“I have all day,” he said.
I laughed. “It has to do with a girl,” I said.
Now he laughed. “Doesn’t it always?”
“Yeah,” I said, “maybe it does.”
I made a play of being a bit reluctant, but then unfolded the chair I was carrying and set it up next to his.
“I met her last
year. I was travelling across Europe and I’d arrived on Crete a couple
of weeks before.”
“How old are you?” said Straw Hat, interrupting me.
“Twenty-five,” I said. I hadn’t actually introduced myself yet, so I stretched out my hand and said, “My name’s Simon, by the way.”
He shook my hand. “Hmm. You’re a little bit younger than I thought.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve spent a lot of time out in the sun. It ages you. Anyway, I guess the place I was staying reminds me of this place, only it was smaller than this. A small sandy beach, not pebbles. There was a little jetty – just a couple of yards wide and maybe twenty yards long – pushing out into the Gulf of Mirambelo. It was late in the afternoon and I’d gone into the taverna there for a drink.
“The ‘taverna’ was little more than a raised floor with a roof supported by half a dozen wooden beams. A light breeze was blowing in, and a little sunlight filtered through the hatch of the roof. I was grateful for the shade and flopped down into a seat.
“‘Beer for Mr Simon,’ the proprietor said – not really as a question, more as a statement that this was what he would bring me. Like I say, I’d been around for a while and I always ordered the same thing, so it wasn’t any major act of clairvoyance on his part. ‘Cold,’ he assured me, and set to the task.
“The thing is, the barman may not have been clairvoyant, but I have some gifts along those lines myself.”
I paused to let that sink in.
“Not real clairvoyance, of course, not mind reading. I mean, no one can do that.”
Straw Hat pulled his sunglasses from his face and gave me a long stare. “Then what do you mean, exactly?” he said.
I smiled. “I just talk to people. Ask the right
question in the right way... they open up to you – especially about
the things that really matter to them. Usually they can’t wait to talk
to you about that. And once you know what they want, well, they’re vulnerable.”
“In those days I used it to my advantage. I’d know what a person wanted and I’d figure a way to scam them. A week before I went to Crete, I’d met this other woman. More than anything else, she wanted to go to Casablanca. You have to laugh. I think she thought she’d meet Humphrey Bogart or something. Anyway, a couple of days later she gave me the money to buy our flights, and consequently she was still where she was and I was on Crete.”
“You stole her money.”
“That’s pretty much how I’d made my way across Europe. One scam after another.”
Straw Hat frowned. “Maybe I don’t wanna hear this story after all,” he said.
I needed to collect up a couple more of the chairs that were due back. “Duty calls,” I said abruptly. “I’ll come back in a little while.”
I stood up and he turned to watch me go. I knew he’d want to hear the rest of the story. I marched away and made a point of not looking back.
By the time I dropped back into the deckchair beside Straw Hat, most of the concert hall structure had been removed, along with the outlying landing stage and much else besides. The work crew moved steadily through the structure. Like dogs stealing bones from a carcass that had died long ago but never been buried.
“Man, it’s hot,” I said, and started
rubbing sunscreen into my arms.
“So tell me about this girl.”
“Ah, yes, the girl. I was in the taverna and I first saw her standing on the little jetty that pushed out into the water there. She was standing right at the end, with her back to me, and her dress gently drifting in the wind, as if she were under the water.
“I’d finished my drink when I saw her move away from the water and walk toward me. I stayed in my seat and considered ordering another beer. As she approached I saw that she was young; 20 years old, I learned later.”
I paused a moment to see whether Straw Hat might react to what I’d just said. There was nothing obvious. Nothing you could see.
“She sat at a table not far from me,” I continued, “and she placed a tape recorder and a microphone on the table. She had a bag, which looked like it would hold the audio equipment, and a purse, which she rummaged inside, probably to check how much money she had. I don’t think she ever had much.
“She glanced over toward me and smiled. So I introduced myself and she said ‘Hi’ back. She had short hair, dyed bright red. She wore glasses: small, rectangular and black-rimmed. She was thin and looked tired.
“She asked for an iced coffee. The fact that she had to ask meant she was either less predictable than me or she was new there. I waved my empty bottle at the guy to indicate I’d have another, and I told her the coffee was excellent. I hadn’t actually tried it myself, but I’d heard other customers saying so. She asked me if I was a local, which made me laugh, although it was reasonable for her to imagine so.”
I held my arm up near to Straw Hat’s, to show how much browner mine was.
“I told her I’d only been there for a few
weeks. She nodded, and turned her face into the slight breeze blowing in from
the sea. She had a restless quality. She kept pushing a finger back through
the hair at her temple, as if trying to comb it into place. ‘I’m
Cara,’ she said, almost as an afterthought.”
Straw Hat’s mouth had fallen open. For a moment he gaped at me like a fish out of water, then he regained his composure and, if you hadn’t been watching him, you’d never know anything had happened. But there’s the surface, see, and there’s what’s going on underneath. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.
thing is,” I told Straw Hat, “it doesn’t usually take long
till I have a person sussed. I know what they want and I’m either figuring
a way to turn it to my advantage, or I’m moving on.
“Take the guy who ran that taverna, for example. He worked hard to keep that place going, but the thing he wanted more than anything was to inherit his uncle’s vineyard in France. It’s not a bad dream, as dreams go. But if he ever gets it I reckon he’ll be bankrupt inside two years. I could be wrong but I seriously doubt it.
“Point is, I knew all about that guy, but I never really figured out Cara.
“After he brought us our drinks we carried on our conversation. I moved over to her table, which she didn’t object to. She asked me what I did for a living and I told her I was an artist. It was a line I used a lot, and I didn’t elaborate on what kind of artist.
“She said, ‘What’s your current project?’
“I said, ‘I guess I’m between projects just now. I’m searching for inspiration. Or waiting for a commission. One or the other.’
“She smiled and took a sip of her drink. I was
intrigued by the equipment she’d placed on the table, the microphone
and tape recorder, so I asked her about it.
“‘My own project,’ she said. ‘I was listening to the water. I’ll record that sound before I leave.’
“I asked her, ‘Whatever for?’
“The question came out a little more harshly than I intended. She looked thoughtful, and didn’t reply for a few moments. Then she only said, ‘I’ll tell you when I know you better.’
“I was slightly thrown by this because I hadn’t realised we were getting on quite so well. She smiled again and there was a playful sense of mischief about it.
“‘How long are you here for?’ I asked her.
“She just shrugged and said, ‘It depends.’
“I’d been looking for a new project, and I suppose that’s what she became. Whether it was inspiration, or a commission, I really couldn’t say.”
nearest town was called Agios Nikolaos and in the evenings I’d go there
to eat in one of the little restaurants huddled around the harbour. And then
on to one of the bars where I’d drink, watch the girls dancing and try
to get lucky.
“I asked Cara if she’d like to join me for dinner. She agreed so I arranged a taxi. By the time it arrived she’d changed clothes and made herself up, and she was looking more appealing than I’d anticipated. Meanwhile, the Greek taxi driver had a disturbing habit of crossing himself whenever we came to a curve in the road, and I was starting to wonder exactly where the evening was heading.
Chris Butler has published one novel, Any Time Now (Wildside Press, 2001).
His short fiction has twice received honourable mention in the Year’s Best Science Fiction (ed. Dozois) and has been nominated for the BSFA and BFS awards.
His short stories include:
Living In Her Shadow – Enigmatic Tales #10, October 2000
The Tyndall Effect – Albedo One #22, November 2000
Wintertime on Frasch – Strange Pleasures anthology, 2001
One Last Look at a Half-Moon – Albedo One #25, June 2002
The Smart Minefield – Interzone #185, January 2003
Cuckoo – Interzone #191, September 2003
To find out more about him, visit his website