Playful eyes of Frank Sinatra smirked at Elsie from the cover of a battered, second-hand box. Elsie felt strangely fulfilled even before she took out the CD, smeared away the few scratches and pressed play.
It was 7:15 and Peter wasn’t there yet. She liked Peter. Liked his pale face with just a few tiny freckles scattered around the bony cheeks, liked his slender fingers clutching a newspaper he was supposed to deliver, liked his ruffled hair smelling of pillows and sleep. Peter was fifteen, which seemed like a breaking point. Fourteen wouldn’t look good on a CV. Fifteen was different. Fifteen was where it all began. Fifteen made you fix your hair and powder your nose. Fifteen made you do things you couldn’t explain. Boyishly skittish on his bike, Peter grew silent and shriveled up the moment he entered the café and slid in behind the table. Paper boy that he was. And then, always faltering, never looking at her: “Black tea with milk, thank you”. Peter was always the way Elsie started her day.
This time, however, he didn’t come. It was only a joke, a tease, but she was disappointed. This is what you got in a small sea town, in a tiny café, in late September. Elsie sighed and adjusted a few things on the tables. There was always a napkin that fell to the side or a bleak patch she had somehow neglected yesterday.
The morning was ambiguous, undecided. Any second now it could turn back and crash headlong into night or stump into a dull day. Mrs. Reinhart was having her morning off, Sam wouldn’t come until after 3, and Elsie was alone. Looking out of the window, she soaked up the dim light from the street and felt the wind as if it was seeping through the glass. The weather was a Daphne du Maurier novel currently lying under her bed. Stay-at-home weather, as her mother used to say. Not a good day for visitors.
Suddenly, she could no longer imagine Mr. Henderson drinking his 8 o’clock coffee and fingering his tie, McGuinney twins fighting over tea cakes and making so much noise, a scruffy middle-aged woman sipping her white tea and never talking to anyone, an old couple saying she looked like an Italian girl they once met near Piazza del Campo in Siena. Elsie knew their habits, their preferences, their schedules and their tips. Elsie liked those people. In a way, they were like the few marine paintings covering the walls of Sea Corner: cozy, watery, indispensable. She knew the feeling was mutual. Mrs. Reinhart, observing Elsie through one of those thin long cigarettes, called her Whitley Bay’s little mermaid. But Elsie was 17 now, and Danish fairy tales had long been supplanted by dark tales of death and mystery.
Elsie stood in the middle of the empty café and closed her eyes. Behind her back, Frank Sinatra dropped off his smoky, romantic croon. He was being raunchy and raucous, with that tricky black hat of his looking suspicious and even wicked in Elsie’s mind. Invisible hands grabbed her wrists and her ankles. Forgetfully, she gave in to a jazzy dance.
The bell rang. When Elsie opened her eyes, the door was shut. The place didn’t come alive and the tables blanked her in frozen half-movement. Why did the bell ring? Elsie remembered yesterday’s telephone conversation with Mrs. Reinhart. Didn’t she ask her about something? One of those whimsical little errands? Buy a dozen sleeping pills and pick up a few fashion magazines on your way back? Was that it? Elsie put on her coat and swung the door open. Deep down she knew that no one would come today.
Outside, on the porch, the wind was breathing through her veins. Elsie stepped down onto the pavement and walked along the street. Whitley Bay looked different. She was expecting a few drowsy pedestrians and a strong smell of fish and chips blowing away from the sea. Instead, Elsie had to put her hand over her mouth to be able to sip the air in small, nervy doses.
When she saw him, she ran up to the stooped silhouette, called his name and made him turn around.
But it wasn’t him. It wasn’t Mr. Henderson. The coat looked shabby and there was no silk tie. The man was older, too, fifty-five and a few slot-machines away from homeless.
“Sorry”, said Elsie. “I thought you were someone else”.
“Well, love. Am I?”
Elsie didn’t like the tone. It had implications. It was sinful and salacious, and for no good reason. It made her think of whoever it was that her mother had married last. Elsie got to the other side of the street and walked faster, groping for people and cars. The pharmacy was still a few buildings away.
The wind cut into her cheeks and her eyes and made it difficult to see. In the end, she could not discern anyone but a lonesome cyclist moving in her direction. She had never been happier about seeing him or his brown bag flapping against his left hip. She would talk to him. Finally, after all these months of black tea and awkward silences, she would talk to him.
“Peter! Peter! Could you please stop?”.
At first it seemed like he didn’t even notice her, and she was hardly a revelation when he did. There was a flicker of something, but she could not trust her eyes welling up with tears and pain.
“Why weren’t you at the café today? Are you going there now?”
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“Peter, what are you talking about.”
She didn’t even manage to make it sound like a question. It was more of an observation, half-baked and incredulous. Peter’s hair was explosive. The pale blue shirt and the green sports jacket made him look warm, bright, different.
“Excuse me, but I can’t be standing here with you. It could be a storm in 15 minutes and I still have a few letters to drop”.
“Peter, what’s going on? It’s me. Elsie”.
He nodded, vaguely, and took his right foot off the edge of the pavement and onto the pedal. She watched his back, his hair, his green jacket blowing up like a runaway sail. Peter? Did he not have any feelings or even a crush, did he not come to the café with the sole intention of looking at her when she turned away to restart the CD or smooth down her apron?.. Elsie felt orphaned, more than she was a year ago, when that first morning came, the police left and Mrs. Reinhart said she owed it to her late mother to do everything she could. Elsie said ‘yes’, she no longer had anyone to say ‘no’ to.
And then there was a grey Renault swerving out of the corner, almost knocking her off her feet. She took a deep breath, like Mr. Henderson did when there was an urgent phone call and he had to leave the café. Had it really happened, had the car really gone into her, what would it have looked like? Whatever she imagined, it didn’t look pretty. Although maybe it would have been nothing. Peter had seen a ghost and the car would have passed through her like a ship would slice through dense morning fog...
The pharmacy almost slipped past her. It wasn’t so bright and sterile as in the days of her childhood. It was more of a supermarket with earplugs, cough drops, laxatives, sandwiches and cheap 5-pound headphones. The few customers were scattered more or less evenly, and somewhere in the midst of them, Elsie finally saw the familiar white frock.
“The weather, huh?”
“It’ll get worse if it starts raining. What can I do for you?”
“Dr. Grieves. Sorry to bother you, but it’s Mrs. Reinhart again. She wants those sleeping pills you gave her last time”.
“Mrs. Reinhart has troubles sleeping? That’s news to me”.
They were standing between shelves stacked with motley bottles and packets of various smells and sizes. It was so difficult and overwhelming that Elsie felt dizzy. Dr. Grieves remained expressionless, drugged out, covered in deep pharmaceutical stench. Or else it was her face, unrecognizable, disfigured by wind, with pale agitation driven into its features. This conversation didn’t make sense, and Elsie imagined that her words were coming out the wrong way, backwards and sideways. She was trying hard, but there was something in the look of the old couple standing nearby that only made it worse. It was the couple from the café.
“Didn’t you discuss this with Mrs. Reinhart a few days ago?”
“Yes? And where was that?”
“In Sea Corner, of course.”
“Young lady, surely you must be taking me for someone else. I haven’t seen Hilda since last Christmas”.
Hilda. He was a pharmacist, he would have remembered. And now he had to be excused, for there was a long queue of other customers he had to attend to. But above all – he called her ‘young lady’, as if that’s all she ever was, to him and to everyone else. As if she had no name on her waitress’s badge. As if the strong tisane he ordered was no more than tasteless tap water. Dr. Grieves listened to the old couple complaining about severe backaches, memory loss, anxiety disorders. A pretty girl from Siena was nowhere to be seen.
Elsie tried that childish game when you looked at someone while simultaneously averting your eyes. The old couple seemed different outside. Their eyes bristled with shame and contempt, and Elsie thought of a dozen fairy-tales in which beautiful creatures turned ugly and evil overnight. “How could you?” their question was muted, it was asked but never voiced. The question meant something. Something a shabby man in the street didn’t even notice. Something a boy on a bike was meant to forget. Something a pharmacist had to be professional about. Something an old couple could not let lie.
Was there any point in talking to them, bringing up that scorching Italian summer and how it was the two of them who began calling her ‘Elsie’? How even Mrs. Reinhart began using that name, first jokingly and then getting used to it like she did to so many other things? Cigarettes, sleeping pills, fashion magazines. Elsie’s mind wandered away from Dr. Grieves’ rippling baritone and the piercing stares. She was panicky: Mrs. Reinhart was supposed to get back after midday, fully expecting to see Elsie collecting and dispatching the bills.
And yet time was running out. Elsie stepped out of the pharmacy and onto the slippery pavement, biting her lips and looking at her next destination. WHSmith across the road, so local and small that it barely existed. Lucy Turner, 25, would be sitting there, chewing her gum, reading a millionth spinoff of Fifty Shades of Grey. Would she recognize her former classmate, would she explain what was going on this morning?..
Despite the weather, Whitley Bay had finally woken up. Its streets were breathing and puffing and screaming, all in a desperate attempt to stay up and not get dragged back into sleep. But Elsie wasn’t meant to see Lucy Turner, not this time. The grey Renault had other plans for the afternoon, and it was doing 30 miles an hour and it braked but only just.
“You are Elsa”, he said, helping her in. “I know your story. And I don’t care”.
He didn’t say his name, but she was still in shock and it was not the time to ask. He was taking her to his place, his face wet with rain rather than apologies and embarrassment. She liked that. He was business-like and he had an excellent collection of silk ties.
Fortunately, there was nothing serious. “Scratches and bruises don’t count”, he said, pouring her red wine and then struggling with the plum cobbler his wife had left for him in the fridge. He showed her the ring finger, saying he had nothing to hide, to prove or to fear. She asked for the mirror, but he said she looked all right. Besides, the lunch break could not last forever and he had to get back to work.
“You are good at this”, he said, afterwards, when something had to be said.
“It’s like you don’t care, like you’re innocent. But you know what you’re doing. That’s experience, I can appreciate that”.
“Don’t let your innocence run away with you. My mother used to say that”.
He kissed her bare shoulder, and right away she knew what it meant. She knew the moves. Only sex addicts did that, and that was the type she preferred to avoid. She didn’t fake it though, she never did. Her moaning was exaggerated, but men liked that and the ticking of the clock was too loud for her liking. Elsa put on her glasses and discovered the time. It was a quarter to three.
“My God”, she said. “Mrs. Reinhart must be there now”.
That’s the second time Elsa heard that name today, and it still sounded odd, even improbable.
“What do you have to do with her? She’s nuts. She’s on crack”.
“She owns a café in Redgrave Street. It’s called Sea Corner. I think I’ve seen you there a few times”.
“Yes”, he said. “A few times. Boring sea pictures on the walls. Sam Phillips? Please. No wine and their cakes are stale. But Mary is a pretty girl”.
And she was.
Late September could be the brightest or the darkest time of the year. When Elsa got out of the house, she thought about the first few chapters of Jamaica Inn and how cozy it would make her feel. Long ago, before the middle age kicked in and there was no time to get under the blanket or put a kettle on. It was dark, a mixture of trampled tree leaves, rainy autumn and early evening. He said he couldn’t take her back in his car, but she could easily find her way out (it’s a small town, etc.) and perhaps next time. “Next time my feet”, she thought. Even though he seemed different and looked like some cool cat from the 60’s working for Neapolitan mobsters. She should have asked whether he could sing.
Elsa was wet and scruffy, but there was a point when it no longer mattered. Suddenly she remembered something she had missed earlier that day. And now that she had money, she could buy any number of fashion magazines from Lucy Turner or whoever it was that worked there now. But it was all wrong, of course, a night window that lit up and promised great drama but ended with a sad glass of water. She didn’t have to buy any fashion magazines.
Yes, the girl was called Mary. That’s what her badge said anyway. He called her pretty, and she was. With her big trustful eyes and her quiet detachment. She didn’t walk, she didn’t have to. What she did was graceful and smooth, like swimming. “White tea?” she asked. “Yes”, replied Elsa, sitting down.
There were people sitting in the café, including two skinny little kids throwing food around the place. Still, customers were in short supply during a rainy season like that. Elsa recognized most of those people, but then she knew most of Whitley Bay. Seaweeds in a seaworld. It was a small town and everyone had a name. She just never felt like talking to anyone, that’s all. She didn’t really like them. It was enough that they knew her habit of coming here on a Friday evening.
Did she have any regrets? Yes, she did. After all, she could have ended up anyone else in this café. Anyone else. With a different drink, a different table and a different kind of day. Instead, she looked at Mary and finished off the tea dregs.
Frank Sinatra was all swagger and steam now, serving it up jazzy and groovy. Something moved inside, the day had gone to her head, and she wanted to jump from her chair, run up to the middle of the room and start dancing. But it was probably too late now. And she was tired. And the place was about to close.