Devil on Sea

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Warm Cockles

Chapter 4
Warm Cockles

As Alan stared at the receding sea he pondered what to do next,

I need to see Mary, now. But where will she be? He glanced at his wrist for a watch that wasn't there and as he did so his throat closed up. He clawed at it, as if willing it to open up again, before it finally un-tightened and air rushed back into his lungs like a long lost lover. He coughed hoarsely, I could do with a drink, though. So he put on his sea-soaked shoes and set off into Brighton city centre, wincing every time a shell fragment found a way into his heel.

Wait, I know this place. Alan thought as he made his way off the beach, this is the area I grew up in. Jeez, I’ve not been back here in years.

His stomach rumbled loudly, threatening to send his throat back into its tensed state. Seems I'm hungry too. Where did I use to eat around here? Wait, why am I in my wedding suit? Alan looked down at himself to find he was dressed head to toe in his wedding suit, which he had always boasted he could still fit in almost two years after being married; even if the pants did pinch and he didn’t dare risk bending over in public. As he looked down he noticed one shirt arm was partially rolled up, showing bare scarred skin, and he unconsciously rolled it back down to hide them. With his stomach continuing to rumble uncomfortably he marched down the nearest road in search of a place to eat, his mind refusing to think on the reason he was wearing his suit, or why his arm had been so scarred. As he approached the nearest diner, a little café with a rusted sign declaring “Warm Cockles”, he instinctively reached for his wallet.

Not that it’ll be there mind. He grasped his right buttock and found the pocket bare. What a surprise. Now what?

As he pondered the question he stood in the middle of the road patting himself down, much to the amusement of on looking seagulls.

What are you doing there? He thought in confusion, finding his wallet in his breast pocket and allowing himself a brief sigh of relief. Horns blared either side of him and he ran across the road, sheepishly waving apologies as he went. As he ducked under a bus shelter, to fish out his wallet, he caught a glimpse of himself in the window.

What's that plaster doing?’ He reached towards his sunken eyes and the small beige plaster across his eyebrow. Grabbing a loose end tentatively with his thumb and forefinger he pulled up in a quick sharp motion. A thousand needles dug into his brow as much of his eyebrow opted for a better life remaining with the plaster. Images of the Devil affixing plasters to his arms and legs, and pulling them off again to his agony, flashed across his mind. The memories grew stronger and he felt the threads of reality begin to unwind before his mind shut out the memory and he looked in annoyance at the plaster. Letting it fall to the floor he slipped his hand in the jacket pocket and looked back in the window for any damage beneath the plaster. There seemed to be none except a thing strip of missing black hair.

Why’s this bloody wallet stuck? Just as his eyes were about to assist his hand, which was stuck in his jacket pocket, he caught a glimpse of a face in the reflection of the glass. A pale looking man was banging on the window of a passing bus, stirring a faint memory in Alan’s mind.

Why do I know that guy? And why does he remind me of my Volvo? As quickly as that memory had surfaced the bus was gone and the memory with it. Sod it, who cares. Pulling his wallet free he smiled in pleasure, Yes! Come to pappa! giving it a quick kiss, to the continued amusement of the two watching seagulls. He opened it in a hurry.

Shit, empty. Wait, what’s that? There was what appeared to be a receipt in one of the folds where there was no money to be found. Double and triple checking his only compartment for notes he finally allowed resignation to sink in.

No lunch for me, then. Opening the receipt, in the hope it was a cleverly disguised fifty pound note, he discovered it was in fact a hand written note; tear stained like the cliché says it should be.

Dear Alan,

My dearest, I’m so sorry and I miss you fiercely. Life is so much poorer without you. Rest easy and in peace.

All My Love

Mary

xxx

Mary, I miss you so much. So much it burns. Alan thought to himself; a tear falling from his eye and landing on a floating-by ten pound note, sticking it fast to the ground. Distracted by his moment of good fortune Alan bent to pick up the note and heard the face-darkening sound of tearing pants.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’ He shouted before he grabbed the cash and made a quick dash into the “Warm Cockles”, hoping no-one saw what happened and hand-written note quickly forgotten about.

The café was grimy and quite clearly didn’t get a lot of custom. An overpowering smell of urea, emanating from an ajar toilet door, was soon swept away by the smell of brine and rotting fish. Alan’s stomach did somersaults and his nose begged for escape.

I’m so hungry, though. His hunger overpowered his stomach and nose, ensuring Alan continued to walk across the shoe-sticking floor. Walking up to the counter, ten pound note clutched protectively in hand, he waited patiently for the grease-stained apron-wearing server to wake up. The café was pretty much empty with only one seat occupied near the stairwell, which contained an ancient looking old man blowing into a bowl.

Is that pickled onion juice? Alan thought before he focused his attention back to the snoring “chef” before him, and cleared his throat. The man juddered awake,

'More time in the nappy,' he muttered. He tried to focus his attention on Alan before deciding it was much more likely he was still dreaming, than the café having a customer, and promptly fell back asleep. Alan cleared his throat again, waking the man so suddenly that he fell out of his chair.

Nice, he’s naked below that apron. And with an erection, oh dear God!! All of Alan’s instincts begged to leave but Alan’s hunger continued to ignore their cries. And besides, his shoes seemed to have become glued to the floor.

‘What’s your most popular dish?’ Alan asked in a timid tone, watching as the man tried to scramble back up right. As he dragged himself up via the counter Alan noticed a tattoo on the man’s arm. A fish with a hook through its mouth and the tag line “A piercing’s for life, not just the stag do”. Alan would have contemplated this further but the man had mumbled something to him and it seemed like he was now laughing at Alan.

‘Excuse me?’ Alan asked whilst attempting to be intimidating; trying to make himself look taller by straightening his tie.

‘I said my pa’s eating out of our most popular dish but I can wash ya another if ya fancy.’

Are you being purposely obtuse? Alan thought, staring at the man. It would certainly explain the lack of customers. He looked around the dingy café again. Partially. Before he could go any further down this line of thinking the man turned his back, giving Alan too much of an eyeful of a hairy crack, and walked into the back of the kitchen; leaving grease filled pans in his wake. Alan pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed, as he was want to do in times of stress. What am I doing here?

Pinching his nose was a habit he’d tried his hardest to lose, once Mary recognised it for what it was. When she saw him sigh and begin to rub the bridge of his nose it always made her more anxious; which in turn made him want to pinch it even more.

‘Take a seat, I’ll bring it out to you.’ Came a cry from somewhere in the dimly lit kitchen, along with swearing, the clanging of metal, and the tell-tale sound of a gas hob mis-firing. Alan turned to survey the seats in the café.

It might be cleaner to sit on the floor. Alan feared before deciding to sit at the table that had the only dry looking chair. Sighing as he sat, he placed his head in his hands and wrestled between the ideas of giving up and going insane, giving up and crying, or giving up and stepping out in front of the next bus.

I’ll keep an eye out for the next bus; after I’ve eaten. He finally decided morosely, much to the dismay of his taste buds.

The waiter-cum-chef sat down opposite Alan, placing a bowl of cockle soup before him as gracefully as a Russian shot putter. Hot, thick, brown liquid attached itself to Alan’s hand and he jolted up right with a start.

At least he’s put a shirt on now. Alan thought to himself before favouring the man with a smile. When the man didn’t get up to leave Alan drew in the soup before him and started to eat; his belly clenching in on itself in both hunger and disgust. The soup was devoured within seconds and Alan leant back, letting out a loud belch before clamping his hands to his mouth in eternal shame. The man before him laughed, his multiple chins clapping together like a seal begging for fish.

‘Don’t take it you recognise me then, Felcher?’ The stranger asked with a smile still playing on his lips, crooked and missing teeth on show. Alan stared at the man across from him. He looked a lot older than Alan and his entire appearance could be summed up with one word, grease. What was left of his hair was stained brown, with grease. Despite looking to be close to his 50’s he was covered in spots and pimples, and grease. Alan continued to struggle to place the face with a name but the nickname he’d just been called placed the location,

College; first day to be more precise.

Alan had been excited about moving on from high school; the place where you were made to feel small if you had even an inkling of intelligence. Fortunately, Alan was only a grade C student. Unfortunately, he was in a grade E average school and he was considered a genius amongst his peers, and thus a target for bullying. But now, college coupled with the fact he had moved to Preston were his ticket out of such torment.

I won’t be the stand out pupil; in fact I’ll probably be one of the dumber kids. Perhaps, if I play my cards right, I could even become the bully for a change. Those were the only thoughts to get him through his last high school summer. Not only that, it was these same thoughts that caused him to have an erection, and distracted him from that fact, on his first day of college.

Walking into class, 9am and vanilla milkshake in hand, Alan arrived late. With the opportunity to wear his own clothes, and not be forced into a school uniform, Alan had opted for skin tight jeans. Skin tight jeans that all the “cool kids” were wearing two years ago. Skin tight jeans that did nothing to conceal a raging boner. Taking a deep gurgling sip from his milkshake upon entering the room he made a scene, and everyone turned to look.

Now to show these cats who’s cool. He thought, pulling the straw out of the cup’s plastic lid with his teeth; in an attempt to convince people he knew how to use a straw because he knew how to use a cigarette. Thick, white milkshake splashed from the end of the straw and down towards the floor, intercepted only by a small bulge at the front of his pants. Laughter erupted in the room and he looked down at himself. Tight jeans emphasised his erection and there, sat atop his crotch, a thick droplet of white milkshake rested. Before he could even blush another drop fell from his straw, joining the first atop his penis. From the back of the class came a deep horrifying voice,

‘Morning, Felcher!’

It was the same voice that Alan now realised undeniably came from the man sat before him: the man who had bullied him his entire time at college.

‘Hello, Joe,’ Alan said as the memory faded, barely able to keep the disdain from his voice. ‘You make a lovely soup. Do you do anything more…… substantial? And perhaps a tea?’ Alan dreaded to think what would be in a meal of more substance at the “Warm Cockles” but his hunger was not satisfied in the least and, if truth be told, he needed a minute to think. As Joe got up to leave he stopped, stood beside Alan, and placed both hands on the grimy table; one hand resting in what appeared to be brown sauce. He then held out one hand and looked down at Alan.

‘The soup was on the house, Felcher.’ Alan realised what he was getting at and he slowly released his grip on the crumpled ten pound note. Before he could hand it over Joe snatched it from his grasp and lumbered back into the kitchen.

I’m not getting change from that. Alan thought miserably before thinking back to college. Joe had, in that one surprisingly quick witted moment on the first day of college, singlehandedly destroyed any chance of Alan being socially accepted. Joe had also continued to be the bane of his two long years at college. They shared English, General Studies, and lunch times, with Joe never once bothering to ask Alan his actual name. He’d also, somehow, managed to get his name changed on the register on a time that they had had a substitute teacher for General Studies: so that at roll call he had answered yes to “Alanis Felching”, instead of his actual name. Joe was quite possibly the last person Alan ever wanted to see again, although Alan couldn’t deny that he was glad he no longer felt quite as alone as he had since waking up on the beach.

But why do I feel alone? Joe returned with a plate and dropped it on the table in front of Alan, disrupting his thoughts.

That plate has either never been washed or has a pattern designed by a blind epileptic. Alan thought, hoping for the latter. On the plate were three steamed clams, rice that was un-drained and steaming, what Alan prayed was squid, and a piece of pink fish. His tea came in a mug with no handle and, by the looks of it, no milk.

‘My, we Brits really do suck at cooking.’ Alan said, instantly regretting it based on the look of offence now plastered across Joe’s face.

‘We Brits have actually treated the world to a range of delicate delights.’ Joe began; face starting to redden with rage. ‘A little known dish called “Fish and Chips” or even “Bangers and Mash”.’ Joe swept his arm in the air, as if to emphasis his point. Alan watched in dismay as sweat flicked from Joe’s brow into his handless mug. ‘We also rescue dishes all the time. The Indians developed a dish known as Chicken Tika. We admired this dish, held it in high esteem before saying "Needs some gravy". Bang!’ Joe slammed his first on the table, throwing flecks of what Alan still hoped was brown sauce onto his plate. ‘The world renowned phenomena that is "Chicken Tika Masala" was born. The Italians brought over a dish. A dish of pasta, tomatoes, herbs and spices. We admired this dish, held it in high esteem before saying "Needs some gravy". Boom! Spaghetti Bolognaise was re-invented. I should know Felcher; I am a chef.’ Joe grinned smugly as he slipped his thumbs through the straps of his apron.

‘It’s Alan, by the way,’ Alan replied a little harsher than he intended. Ignoring the look of disappointment on Joe’s face at the dismissal of his brilliant speech, Alan began on the fish. As he cut into the pink flesh one of the patterns on the plate moved with the direction of the piece of fish and his stomach lurched the same way. Alan decided to eat the rest of the meal without looking down. And to look for plates by blind epileptics online.

‘And I wish I could say it’s good to see you again.’ Alan began tentatively. ‘Still, you seem to be doing well and that makes me smile, a little. What made you move to Brighton?’ Alan finished, chewing on the piece of fish as if it was under cooked steak. Joe was visibly hurt, taking Alan aback. Joe’s brows furrowed in anguish and his eyes started to water just a fraction. He brought both his hands down from his apron, screwing them into fists.

Oh shit, I’ve angered a giant. Alan was just about to raise his fish knife in defence when Joe’s face broke into a big grin. He leant over the table, a tear joining the sweat in Alan’s tea, and grabbed one of the clams.

‘Take over me da’s business. And glad to see you’ve still got your sense of humour there, Felcher,’ he said before downing the clam in one. ‘For a minute there I thought you were being serious.’ Alan sighed inwardly.

You never were the sharpest tool in the tool shed, except when it came to the bullying and sexual innuendo. In fact, Alan had often wondered if there were any tools in his shed at all, or even if the shed existed. Shaking his head Alan moved on to the rice, in the hope that it would fill his still rumbling but cart-wheeling stomach, so he could leave this dingy café as soon as humanly possible.

‘Alan, please; if you don’t mind,’ Alan said again, before frowning in pain. How is it possible to get rice to steam and yet still be undercooked and crunchy? ‘So you run your own business now, very nice.’ Alan had decided it might be a good idea to try and be nice to Joe, for the time being.

After all, I don't want Joe beating me to a pulp. I’ve just come back from the his mind went blank for a moment why did I think I was dead? Joe smiled, visibly proud of Alan’s off handed remark and not noticing the confusion now on his face.

‘Well technically it’s still my da’s, if I’m honest.’ He gestured wildly towards the old man in the corner who, despite still eating from the same bowl as when Alan entered, was blowing on his soup as if it had just been cooked. ‘He’s a little too old to run the place so it’s fallen on to me to keep it ship-shape.’ Alan looked around again, the nagging feeling that his mind was keeping something from him temporarily disappearing.

It does look ship-shape, but only if you included the wrecks at the bottom of the Atlantic in that description. He smiled up at Joe and went back to the fish; hoping this section wasn’t as chewy.

‘What about you Fel-‘ Alan looked up at Joe, patchy eyebrow raised; Joe smiled back. ‘Alan. What have you been up to since college?’

Oh nothing much, really. Got married, had the perfect life, and then just as I was about to seal my biggest sell I... Alan froze mid-thought with a piece of fish stuck fast to the fork halfway to his mouth.

'Alan?' Joe asked again with a confused look.

‘Sorry, I was miles away then. Well, I got a job at Swindle and Fleece Estate Agents not long after leaving college,’ Alan began, putting back down the piece of fish and starting on what he hoped was cooked squid, ‘where I moved down here with my wife, Mary, for the job. Mary Sullivan if you remember her? Now Mary Park, of course. We had scrimped and saved and eventually we got a house on Beaconfields Villas, up near Preston Park. In fact, it’s where I intend to be heading straight after here.’ Alan again forced a smile and took a sip of his tea to help the not quite as chewy squid down his throat, before remembering about the tear, and the sweat. His grimace was only half from the taste. Looking back down, despite previously deciding he wouldn’t, he realised he’d cleaned the plate; literally.

Looks like it really wasn’t charity crockery after all. Alan’s stomach did another cartwheel; out of joy or disgust Alan was unsure. Slowly rising he stuck out a hand, which Joe looked at it the same way a chimp would an offered newspaper.

‘It’s been nice seeing you again, Joe.’ He continued to leave his hand there and it slowly dawned on Joe’s face that Alan was leaving. Engulfing Alan’s hand in both of his he squeezed, hard, and shook it vigorously.

‘It’s been great to see you again, Felcher. You come back soon, ya hear. You and Mary both! I'll do you a fancy dinner, you can come here for your anniversary!’ Alan retrieved his hand from Joe’s bear like grip and clutched it in pain.

The day I come back here is the day Satan ice skates to work. He thought before an all too clear image of Lucifer doing just that, if only to remind the denizens of Hell what the cold felt like, temporarily lit up in his mind. Alan nodded absent mindedly, trying to dislodge the image of the devil in a fur coat and wearing skates waving at him. He began to walk away, wincing all the way to the door with his crushed hand held under his armpit. As he opened the door he turned to give a feeble wave goodbye; just in time to see Joe, behind the counter, spit on the plate he’d used, wipe it with his apron, and then place it back on the shelf with the others.

It’s good to be back. Alan thought grimly to himself, not quite sure what he meant by "back".

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