The opening of my novel Sea Fret. (Completed but I’m currently 30,000 words into a radical rewrite.)

Peter settled himself down on the edge of the gently sloping grassy scrub on the cliff top and took in the whole sweep of the bay with a single glance. It was worth looking at in the afternoon sun. A heavy brown boulder clay expanse of cliff led out to Filey Brigg, pointing along the horizon to the far off, sparkling white, chalk headland over at Flamborough Head. There was nothing but air between him and the long shining stretch of sand a hundred feet below and it felt like he was flying. The gannets were plunge diving out at sea, dropping like bullets one by one into the water, performing a sleek, finely honed dance of death and the wind was singing in his ears. This was all right. It had been a good choice to come here. It was good for the dog too. He ruffled the scruffy black tufts of hair on the back of her head and she beat her tail a few times before shaking him off. The dog was a jack russell terrier and until two weeks before she had been spending her time sitting behind the wire mesh of a run in a dog rescue centre thirty miles away. Her habit of growling at anyone who went past had ensured that she had spent almost four years in there until Peter had seen her and told the incredulous girl in the green hoodie that he wanted to give her a home.
“You’ve never had a dog before?”
“No”, he had said defensively. “But I’ve got a garden now.”
It had all worked out. The dog had found the soft bed which he had bought for her in the coroner of the kitchen and made it clear that she wasn’t going anywhere and that she would be doing exactly as she pleased. That had been fine by him. She had a name, but dog was what he called her and she didn’t seem to mind. If there was something in it for her she responded to him and if there wasn’t, she didn’t. As a Yorkshire man Peter could relate to that. The two of them were looking as if they might be well suited. During the past three weeks they had walked miles together as they both got to know their new home.
He didn’t hear the girl coming up behind him, but the dog did. They both turned their heads. She was standing a few feet away, glaring, dark hair blowing back in the wind, five feet of untamed teenage attitude, thin as a whip and possibly almost as dangerous. Peter had been a high school teacher so he knew all about that. He turned back to the sea, hoping that she would go away.
The dog continued to glare back and the rumbling of a growl began in her belly.
“Does your dog bite?”
The voice sounded close. Peter didn’t turn round.
“Not so far.”
“Can I stroke her?”
“I wouldn’t trust her.”
The dog had other ideas. She was pulling on the end of the lead towards the girl now. Her front paws were waving in the air and the whole of her back end was wagging.
“She looks all right to me. Can I stroke her?”
Peter sighed. Bloody dog.
“I suppose so. Didn’t your mother warn you not to talk to strange men?”
She looked at him scornfully.
“I’m not a kid. Anyway you’ve got a dog. Axe murderers usually leave their dogs at home. My name’s Carly.”
Carly walked forward and knelt down in front of the dog who wriggled with pleasure and pushed herself against the soft surface of her fleece.
“She likes me.”
“You’re lucky.”
The three of them sat together silently for a while looking out to sea and watching the gannets feed. Peter wondered whether he should ask the girl to go away. She probably wouldn’t go.
He was going to have to get up and leave himself.
“The gannets don’t often feed this close in. I sometimes watch them round the back of the Brigg. There must be a shoal of herring sile that’s been blown in.”
She looked at him curiously.
“You don’t live here do you?”
“Yes I do.”
She was sceptical.
“How long for?”
He had discovered that this question was the first that any local would ask when you told them that you lived in Filey. Length of stay in a place where there were so many visitors was regarded as a badge of honour. Being born here set you apart.
“Three months.”
“Nearly a local then.”
They looked at each other and grinned.
“I run one of the chip shops.”
He could see that she was surprised. This was something she would have expected to know already.
“Which one?”
“The one that used to be Harrison’s.”
A slight frown crossed Carly’s face. This was obviously bad news.
“That’s where my mum works.”
“And your mum is?”
“A pain in the neck.”
“Jess Hunter.”
Peter nodded silently. Jess did a good job. She had been a Godsend while he settled in, reminding him of things that he had forgotten and making sure that she served the more intolerant locals herself. Now that he had been told, he could see the same sharp features and intelligent eyes that Jess had in her daughter. In fact as he thought about Jess he was surprised to realise just how much he had obviously noticed her. This was not good. Time to go.
“Anyway, that reminds me. They were putting up the new shop sign today and I need to make sure it hasn’t fallen down.”
“Right. My tea will be ready soon as well.”
Before he could stop her Carly lifted the dog’s front legs and put her face close. They stared at each other nose to nose.
“Bye dog. You’re cute. Get him to give you a decent name.”
She jumped up and ran back down the cliff path. The dog watched her until she was out of sight and then flopped back down onto the grass. He stroked her gently.
“Good dog.”
Peter wasn’t quite sure what the sound which the dog made in reply meant, but it was definitely not a compliment. He felt slighted.
“Come on then. She’ll be out of the way by now.”
They made their own slow way back down the cliff path, across the pitch and putt course and towards the long straight avenue that led back into the town. As they passed the end of the ravine that led down to the beach the last of the days visitors were making their way laboriously up to the car park, dragging spades, kites windbreaks and tents behind them. He was glad that now, when the car park was empty, he would still be here.

* * *

When Arthur got to his daughters he could hear shouting. He stood at the door, listening, wondering whether he ought to ring the bell instead of walking straight in as he usually did.
“Have you been hanging round that bloody bus shelter again?”
That was his daughter Jess.
And that was his granddaughter Carly, the light of his life. Arthur loved Carly very much, and not just because she was his only grandchild, but he wasn’t always sure that her mother did. Carly wasn’t shouting. She was sulking. She was probably sulking on the settee in front of one of the shopping channels. Arthur had seen her do that a lot. Carly was difficult, Arthur realised that; her mother had been difficult too. She had needed what Dorothy called firm handling. Sometimes the handling had been a bit too firm for Arthur, but you couldn’t tell Dorothy that. Sometimes he even heard Val say the same things to Carly that her mother had said to her, and they still made him wince. Anyway he couldn’t just go home, they would wonder what had happened to him, and there was nothing in his fridge. He opened the door.
“It’s only me.”
Jess came out of the front room very quickly, looking harassed.
“Hello dad. Go and have a sit down. Tea won’t be long.”
“Right you are.”
Arthur did the same with Jess, when she got worked up, as he had done with her mother. He agreed with her, then he kept well out of the way. No matter what. Over the years he had found that was what worked best. He went into the front room and, just as he had expected, Carly was on the sofa, remote control in hand, staring at the shopping channel. He sat down, facing the fireplace, in his usual chair.
“Now Carly.”
They were selling fleece jackets with wolves printed on them. Carly waved an arm towards him but her eyes stayed fixed on the screen.
“£49.99. No way.”
They sat watching the numbers on the screen flip round as the price went down and people bought. Arthur stared at the woman on the television. She had a bright red dress, shiny lipstick and surprised eyebrows. She was smiling all the time. Arthur decided he didn’t like her. Carly shifted in her seat and flicked the remote.
“Silly cow.”
Arthur adjusted his glasses.
“No need for that.”
Carly shrugged.
“Do you want your cookery programme?”
“Don’t mind. Whatever you like.” Carly flipped the switch on the remote. They were cooking a piece of tuna. This was interesting to Arthur. It was very dark, a different colour to the tuna he got in tins, and he wondered why.
“I bet that’s very tasty,” he told Carly. “Very tasty.”
Carly made a retching sound and rolled her eyes.
“Gross. Can’t stand fish. It stinks.”
“How are your mates doing?”
Carly grinned.
“Breezer nearly bit some kid yesterday.”
Arthur smiled. Carly would always talk about the beach donkeys. She had been helping Matty and Dot for nearly four years now. It had started off because when her mother had a go at her, being with the donkeys calmed her down. They had still quiet faces, and soft ears, and they just stood there on the sands with their eyes half closed until they were asked to walk up and down again. She knew all their names, and which ones were the stubborn ones. Breezer was her favourite donkey. He was almost all brown, with a few white markings on his face and legs, and he was awkward. Carly had explained to Arthur before how you had to watch him if some kid screamed out or poked him, and that if you let him get in front of Miss Molly he would kick out. Miss Molly had nipped him once and like Carly, he didn’t forget. Arthur listened happily. He liked to hear Carly talk.
“You’ll have to let me have a word with him, before he gets himself into real trouble.”
Carly giggled.
“He doesn’t listen to anybody that one.”
“Like somebody else I know.” Arthur said mildly, grinning back at her.
“Shut your face granddad.”
Carly stuck her tongue out with enormous enthusiasm, sticking her chin out and wobbling her head. Arthur laughed.
“You want to watch it. If the wind changes you’ll stay like that.”
They were still laughing when Val came back in to tell them that tea was ready. Carly slumped back into the chair, turned the volume up on the television, and stared at the screen.
“Don’t want any tea. I’m going to have some chips.”
“You’ll come and eat it now, when I’ve gone to the trouble of making it.”
Carly just carried on staring at the screen. This wound her mother up, as she knew it would. Arthur hoped that there wasn’t going to be another full scale row. He would rather be somewhere else if that was on the cards. He got up and went quietly through to the kitchen. Val’s trouble had only extended to taking a plastic wrapper off a pizza and putting it in the oven. It was sitting in the middle of the table next to a green salad which had been emptied into a bowl. It looked like it was a Morrison’s one. He sat down and waited. There were four places set. He hoped that didn’t mean that his son in law Simon would be coming in for tea. Simon was one of only a few people that Arthur would admit to thoroughly disliking. Simon was always saying things that sounded to Arthur like they were meant to be funny. Arthur would try to smile, or even laugh, without really knowing why, just to be polite, and then Simon would just stare at him blankly and leave him feeling stupid. No, Arthur didn’t like Simon. Neither had Dorothy. She had given Arthur a right earful about him after Jess brought him home for the first time.
Thankfully there wasn’t going to be a row this time. Carly slunk into the chair next to him and helped herself grudgingly to half a slice of pizza. She sat there pulling the topping off and leaving it at the side of her plate. Jess sat down and helped herself to a double slice.
“So how are you doing dad?”
Arthur sawed at his pizza. It was very hard. He wondered if the brown things were anchovies because he didn’t think he liked them.
“I’m all right. Somebody left me a lasagne on my doorstep a few days back, did I tell you? Very nice it was. I had it for my tea.”
Val frowned.
“On your doorstep? What would they want to do that for? Do they think you’re starving or something? Cheek.”
“I thought it was very nice of them.”
“Who was it?”
“Lady at number 32. Margaret her name is. I talk to her sometimes if she’s mowing her lawn.”
Carly brightened up.
“A lady? Granddad!”
Val flashed a look at her.
“Shut up Carly. Don’t be so silly.”
Carly put down her knife and fork and stared into space.
Arthur went a little bit red in the face.
“Nothing to make a fuss about.”
“No, of course it isn’t,” Jess said quickly. “Eat your tea Carly.”
Arthur was about half way through his share of the pizza when he heard the front door slam. That would be Simon. He looked at the kitchen clock, wondering if he could go home yet. Not really. It was a bit too early.
Jess’s face closed off, and she swept what was left of the pizza onto a plate and put it in the microwave to heat up.
“About bloody time.”
Carly scraped her chair back and looked at Arthur.
“I can walk home with you if like.”
Jess sighed.
“You don’t have to go yet dad. Stay as long as you like.”
“No, I’d better be getting on.”
“Just as you like.”
Arthur got up and found his hat.
“Thanks for tea.”
Val was already loading plates into the dishwasher.
“That’s OK dad. See you later.”
Carly followed him out of the front door. He could just hear Jess’s voice as the door slammed behind them.
“Don’t be out too late Carly.”
“Silly cow,” Carly said under her breath, but not so quietly that Arthur didn’t hear it.
Carly looked down at the ground.
“Well, she is. She’s a total embarrassment.”
“Maybe we all are sometimes.”
Arthur walked along next to Carly, worrying quietly. Carly had started to do as she liked from the minute she could walk, and nothing had happened since to make any difference. The first time he had heard her tell her mother to bugger off she had been five years old. He had been shocked, but mostly thankful that Dorothy didn’t hear it. He decided it must be something she had heard her father say a lot, and although she didn’t know what it meant she had noticed the effect it had on her mother and wanted to try it out. It hadn’t had quite the same effect as when her father said it. Arthur had once been there, a long time ago, when that had happened. There had been a lot of noise and shouting and in the end Jess had just sat down in a heap and cried. It had all been very awkward. She had told Arthur afterwards, while they were drinking the cup of tea he made, that she would have liked nothing better than to bugger off. Carly was a toddler at the time. She had climbed onto the chair next to her mum and tried to show her a Beanie Baby to cheer her up, but it hadn’t worked. Her mother had put her back on the floor and shoved a cartoon DVD into the machine.
As time went on he had watched Jess retreat into her own small world of Maeve Binchy novels, vodka, daytime television, line dancing on Thursday nights, chocolate, and a job in a local chip shop. Most of this didn’t interest Arthur, and it was hard for him to know what to say about it. As for Carly, he had watched her grow up and investigate a very different world of her own. Now that she was sixteen this mostly centred around school, where she did as little as possible, the local bus shelter, her mobile phone, local lads, her group of friends and the beach donkeys.
He looked at her now, as she stumped along next to him, staring at the ground. She had scraped back her hair into a pony tail and her face looked pinched and unhappy. He wished there was something he could do about it.
“Where are you off to now then?”
Carly wrinkled her nose and shrugged.
“Dunno. Bus shelter probably.”
Arthur didn’t like the look of most of the teenagers who he saw hanging around the park shelters and the bus station in Filey. Once he had been walking past a group of them, when one of them had asked him very loudly where he got his hair cut. He had shouted back “mind your own business,” and for some reason they had found this very funny. It had been a little bit upsetting.
“Don’t know why you like hanging around them places so much.”
Carly kicked at a Capri Sun wrapper that was floating along on the pavement.
“Something to do isn’t it. See my mates.”
Arthur could see that. He wondered who Carly’s mates were. He remembered one called Suzanne.
“How’s Suzanne?”
“I hate her. Minger.”
Arthur had no idea what minger meant, but he understood the hate part.
“Why is that then? I thought you two were thick as thieves.”
“Not now we’re not. She’s got a boyfriend.”
“Oh dear. Anyway I thought you had a boyfriend?”
There was a long silence. Arthur decided he had better not say any more. When they got to his road end he watched her head on towards the bus shelter with her head down against the drizzle. He was glad he didn’t have to be sixteen again.

* * *

It was a very strange feeling for Peter, standing over the road after the sign writer had finished. Very strange. He stood there, with his hands in the pockets of what used to be his best suit trousers, wondering what the hell he had let himself in for. Anyway, there it was. PETE’S PLAICE. He’d decided he might as well go with the name after his friend Kieran suggested it as a joke. It had been more of a thinly disguised sneer than a joke really, but he’d gone along with it, just to show that he didn’t care. He had wanted to call it The Wrath of Cod himself, but they had decided that probably wouldn’t sell so much fish. This was it then. His future. A local chippie. It had been a bargain too, the previous owners didn’t want to have to keep it going through another winter. Not much of a challenge for somebody who’d been headteacher of a large high school before he was forty. Mind you, settling in hadn’t been easy. He’d had to do his research, and after that they’d made him work bloody hard. He’d smelt of chip fat for weeks while he helped out the previous owners so that he could learn the ropes and that was at a time when he didn’t think he’d be able to get his head round cooking his own dinner, never mind cope with cooking for dozens of other people. It had been a definite step forward, and the doctor had seemed pleased. Therapeutic work he’d called it. Peter had called work a lot of things in his time, but never therapeutic.
All of the staff had chosen to stay on but one, and he’d got somebody to replace her. The one who had been there longest was called Miriam. She’d seemed a bit startled at the interview Peter had insisted on giving her – he was more used to interviewing people applying for school posts than fish fryers – but she seemed happy enough when he had told her he would like her to stay on. A bit edgy maybe, but she was very neat and looked like being efficient enough, and that’s how it had turned out. He thought about Carly’s mother Jess. She’d be coming in for her shift later on. He had begun to wonder what she was doing there. She had more about her than the rest of them, and he recognised a sharp intelligence, which she could have put to better use. He wondered why that had never happened. So long as she did her job he supposed that was none of his business. You didn’t have to worry much about staff development if you were running a chippy.
Since he arrived he had just about managed to keep the shop, and himself, together. Sometimes it had been touch and go. Every so often, if he felt a bit shaky, he would go out the back and just sit with his eyes shut until he felt better. Eventually even Miriam had got used to him doing that, and stopped grumbling. Miriam was all right. Maybe she had asked too many questions to start with, but she was all right. She was good hearted, and the customers liked her, but it was Jess that he had begun to watch. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but she had a neat little figure, long legs and thick black hair, and a graceful way of moving when she battered fish, lowering them into the fat a lot more carefully than the others and lifting her hand away from the heat at the last moment like a dancer. She seemed sensible too, the kind of woman you could depend on. A long time ago Peter had had his heart broken by somebody who was very pretty, and anything but dependable, and so he felt safe around Val. She seemed different. He never said anything of course, just watched as she chatted to the customers and added an extra layer of newspaper to be certain the chips would stay warm if she knew that they walked slowly or had a long way to go. He liked that. Most people here weren’t as gentle as that. Sometimes Miriam could be pretty scary. You didn’t want to get in her way while she was cleaning out the deep fat fryers, and you wouldn’t want to stand on a bit of floor she’d already mopped at twenty five past seven, not if you were Peter anyway, and sometimes not even if you were a customer.
It was going all right on the whole. The one thing he hadn’t managed to convince them about was the music. For the first couple of weeks he had commandeered the ghetto blaster on the high shelf and played his Bach and Vivaldi concertos, with some Debussy or Ravel when he felt like a change. Nobody had said anything to start with, but eventually Gina and Miriam had sent Jess through to find him in the back of the shop. She had looked uncomfortable, and he had had to ask her what she wanted.
“We were wondering about the music.”
“What about it?”
“Well, we were wondering if we could have something more cheerful. We have the radio on normally. Radio Two.”
Peter had noticed that when he had been in the shop learning the ropes. It had driven him crazy. He had started to explain this, but she had interrupted him.
“It’s just we all like it. It puts time on, and the customers like it as well.”
He had given in.
His favourite job at the shop was making the batter. He enjoyed making up the soft pale liquid to exactly the right thickness so that it would spread over the fish in an even creamy coat when he dipped the fillets of cod and haddock in. It was satisfying, just a small job that he could do to perfection without anybody interfering. He learned how to swing the fish over the hot fat and drop it in close to the surface, letting his hand pull back at the last minute. Just a few pieces of fish at a time. No targets, and no performance reviews.
Filey had been a good choice for him. It was somewhere you could disappear. People got used to seeing you about, without asking questions. Plenty of people passed through Filey, and many of them didn’t stay long. You would see a face on the street for a few months, and then it would be gone. Visitors, retired folk on the estates who went on long cheerful rambles with the walking club, the elderly whose families deposited them in one of the large hotels on the front which had been turned into nursing homes, the visitors from the tin boxes filling the fields on the edge of the town, the day trippers who filled up the grassy car parks on the cliff top in summer, and the students who came out of nowhere to do the seasonal work, they would all leave sooner or later. Filey was used to strangers, whatever it’s long term residents might think of them, and they could feel comfortable there. That suited Peter.
“Your sign’s not fallen down yet then.”
He recognised the voice.
“No it hasn’t. I thought you were going home for your tea.”
“I’ve had it. I’m off down the bus shelter now.”
“Exciting times.”
Carly looked at him pityingly and grinned.
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

This entry was posted in Fiction.

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