The streets of Alicante glow with strings of warm light on New Year’s Eve. Or so I’ve heard. I should be there, but I’m on a park bench outside a municipal library on the Dengie Peninsula, staring at the scuffed toes of somebody else’s plimsoles. On my feet. My flight to Spain taxied out to the runway at five-thirty yesterday morning. Then it trundled back just as soon, unloaded my ailing wife – and me – and went on its way.
So now I’m here, gazing into my childhood town, dark, with low, cottage doorways and cracked brickwork. A hairdresser shop-sign swings in the wind but doesn’t squeak like it would in a film. The dominant noise, by far, is the tinkle-tinkle of the sailing boats bobbing on the wrinkled river. The white-rendered houses have brown teardrops under the windows from the salt of the estuary. Weatherboarding in this part of the world reminds one of far-flung countries where makeshift structures keep the light winds out, but can easily be rebuilt after storm or flood. I’d forgotten about it. It’s been so long. It reminds me that we are only nine metres above sea level, that the flat marshland makes this peninsula particularly vulnerable. The surge of the North Sea in 1953 can be marvelled over in black and white photos. People sit on rooftops. My father waded up Station Road, carrying our border collie on his shoulders. It’s all here, my history, but my wife never wanted to live here. And so I return, a stranger.
The ambulance was waiting for us on the runway. I travelled in it to the hospital, holding my wife’s hand, watching her eyelids rise and fall as she tried to keep looking at me. I know what you’re doing, I thought, but you won’t die here, not two days before the new year, so there’s no need to clutch at every detail of my face. Later, polystyrene coffee in hand, I caught my reflection in a glass door and decided that, really, my wife was wondering if it was me, not some tramp back from the dead. My skin, beaten by the December frost, flakes between my eyes and across my forehead. Red veins stitch their way along my cheeks – too many goodbye brandies this Christmas – they will fade, in time. Two days without showering has left my hair pressed into patches of flat and spiky, as if someone removed a piece of heavy furniture from deep-pile carpet. My shoes were lost at the airport, but that’s another story. Not my fault, of course, and the replacements from Lost Property are the plimsoles I mentioned, with faded laces. My coat – my old coat – is intended for the first second hand shop we come across in Alicante. Although nobody on the Costa Blanca needs a calf length, sheepskin overcoat. It has been over fifteen years since I last wore it, and the hem is now down to my ankles, the shoulder seams are sagging and split, the lapels are wide across my chest. I am a small, old man; I have long been used to that fact. But I had hoped to become a smaller, older man in the sun.
"I am a small, old man; I have long been used to that fact."
Our furniture is currently being loaded into a storage box in Elche. The estate agent is poised – in his sunglasses, I imagine, beard glistening – to hand over our rental agreement.
He will have to wait.
This morning, with a mask suctioned to her face and her eyes half open, my wife managed to tell me go and find a hotel. ‘You need a proper rest,’ she said.
‘It’s New Year’s Eve,’ I said. ‘Where do you want me to find a hotel? I’ll sleep in the visitor’s room again.’
She shook her head. ‘If you come back in the morning, looking like that, they’ll admit you.’
It’s true that sleeping across three, waiting-room chairs had done nothing to improve my complexion. But every hotel within a ten-mile radius was booked or closed. One night in airport accommodation was more expensive than a week’s rent on our sea view apartment. I expanded my search area to fifteen miles. Still nothing.
Twenty miles. Nothing.
It must have been a sign.
The White Cart hotel, in the town I grew up in, had a single room with shared facilities for forty pounds. It was almost thirty miles away, but I booked it. Then I took a taxi into town to hire a car; I would drive myself there and drive back in the morning.
‘Let’s just get New Year’s Eve done,’ I said to her before I left.
She closed her eyes as she nodded, her mask steaming and clearing. ‘Okay, love.’
I’ll bring her a box of mandarins in the morning, I vowed, as I put the hire car into drive.
The Dengie Peninsula is popular with motorcyclists due to its sharp bends. There are ten on the way to my childhood town, and always a poster in the local cafe warning riders not to take corners too quickly. I drive as if I’ve never been here, taking in the dimming fields of frosted green, the occasional tall, surprising hill. Farm machinery sleeps inside clouds of night-time fog.
"I drive as if I've never been here, taking in the dimming fields of frosted green, the occasional tall, surprising hill."
Mine is the only car on the high street. Groups of young people tumble along the pavements with pointy, foil hats and tinsel boas. My smile feels strange on my face – the past forty-eight hours have taken their toll – but I am transported, momentarily, to my eighteenth birthday, to a similar crowd, falling from pub to pub. As I park the car, my hand trembles on the handbrake. I am eager to see the quay again, to swim through the shadows of my youth. I siphon a few items from our suitcase into a carrier bag and walk up the lane to the river. It is as I remember it; silently sweeping the moored sailing boats towards the North Sea. The opposite bank holds one, glinting light. I’ve always imagined that it is envious of the illuminated strip of quay on the other side. There is another pub further up, then the yacht clubs. I can hear music, the laughter from the outdoor drinkers – even in winter, the picnic benches are clogged with shivering smokers. I like to think that I have contributed to their merriment, that my time here set a precedent. This is the way we do things, in this little town with thirteen pubs and no through road.
The White Cart spills grandly onto the quay, its square-paned bay window resembles the stern of a galleon. Exactly as I left it, I think, and it strikes me that time is so small. Red carpet, sequenced with Fleur de Lys, is worn at the threshold. Framed half-hull models are wonky on the textured wallpaper. To the left is the restaurant – empty – to the right is the bar. I enter, feeling proud for whatever reason. I could linger on the images from my past as they present themselves; dinner at this table with my first girlfriend; four months later she dumped me, at the same table. A line of whiskey chasers along the bar for someone’s birthday – I don’t think it was mine. For the first time since arriving, I wish that my wife were with me. I would point out all of these details, bring the scenes to life; perhaps she would see the charm, regret not moving here with me when we met.
The pub is not full – it is not a ‘young’ pub – but as the door closes behind me, I am aware of the few customers turning to stare. The barman too is watching me, head tilted, his forearm resting on the Ghost Ship pump. I nod – a northern trait that I’ve picked up – and feel the crackle of my carrier bag as I shuffle over to the bar.
The barman says nothing, so I say, ‘Good evening.’
‘Hello,’ he says, his gaze on the lapels of my coat.
‘Pint of IPA, please.’
He narrows his eyes, then tilts his face away, making eye contact with someone in the kitchen, probably, in some hidden area I cannot see. They exchange a word without speaking and he looks back at me.
‘Did you come down on the last train?’ he says.
He moves then, in slow motion, to the shelves behind him, and his hand is hovering over a clean, tulip glass when he says, ‘Are you sure you can pay for it?’
I squint, not understanding. ‘The train?’
He frowns. ‘The pint.’
My mouth drops open. ‘Of course I can.’
I rummage in my pocket to retrieve my wallet and my hand goes through the lining. My wallet slips into the hole and thuds to the floor. It shocks me as I bend to pick it up, the dappled, rubbed-away leather, the cardboard interior poking through at the corners, and in that moment, I see myself as he sees me.
‘Sorry,’ says the barman. ‘It’s just that we’ve had a few down from London, recently.’
I stare at him, with his arms folded over his chest and his rows of gleaming bottles. His cufflinks. His tie pin. A few what? I think. A few what? The customers have resumed their chatter, but I know they have an eye on me, will watch me as I take my pint and choose a stool amongst them. I turn and push back through the door. I’ll drive to the carpark by the mill fields and hide in the darkness. I’ll sit there until I fall asleep. Or perhaps I’ll head back up north, to the green behind our two-bed bungalow and watch the front-room light glow through curtains that are no longer mine.
Calm down, I tell myself, as I drive away. It was just one man in one pub.
I breathe. My wife will have a comforting word, or at least she’ll be as incensed as I am. I will text my wife, yes. As soon as I park, I will text her…
I have just reversed into a bay when I see the four missed calls. The hospital. I hold my breath and call back. The nurse picks up. My vision thickens the black car air and through the whooshing in my ears I hear what I was hoping not to.
"My vision thickens the black car air and through the whooshing in my ears I hear what I was hoping not to."
‘I’m so sorry,’ she says.
And of all the things to say, ‘There’s no need to be sorry,’ slips from my lips. ‘Goodbye now. Happy New Year.’
I cup the phone in my hand for a long time. It is probably too soon to cry. The air-freshener and plastic seat smell clags in my throat and the car feels too small to contain me. I get out, lurch up to the library and sit on this bench. I observe the high street, left, then right, and pretend that it is 1968 and I am waiting for my girlfriend to meet me here, and she will say yes when I propose to her at The White Cart, and I will never go up North.
And so I will not live the heartache that grips me now.
Opposite, a family eats chips outside a takeaway restaurant. They cross the road and pass me, the parents taking me in, sidelong. Their little girl runs up to me, causing her mother to pivot and call her back. But she grins, pigtails swinging inside the puffs of her own breath. She reaches out and puts something in my hand. I look down, it’s a twenty pence piece. I spend a moment blinking at it, so long that when I look up, she is gone, and far off the clock tower is counting down to midnight and pub voices are helping it, shouting out of time, and zipping fireworks drown out the tinkling masts.
I stare at the sky and watch a plane blink into the night.
Amy is interested in dystopian fiction and is the author of ‘The Biggerers’, a domestic dystopia published by Point Blank in 2018. Amy has written for Lithub, the NAWE magazine and Short Fiction in Theory and Practice.