West Pier Parade is a collection of squat houses, jammed together in a row, like too many teeth in a child’s mouth. Fashioned from red brick, pebble-dash, peeling stucco or black wooden siding, each house is unique sharing only the smallness of the rooms and lowness of the ceilings. Built for the working poor from the late 1700s through the early 1950s, when the bombed-out gaps became utilitarian homes, the parade is neither whimsy nor delight. Its grimy windows look out onto a modest two-lane street with double-yellow lines to prevent parking, beyond that onto the cracked-concrete promenade defending the town from the gray, churning waters of the English Channel, and thence down onto a deep shingle beach and the chilly waves.
Trudging westward through the rain sweeping off the Channel that early morning in August, you might follow the street past the shuttered Ben’s Fish N Chips with its sharp vinegar tang, until it peters out at a rutted parking lot giving access to seven tall wooden huts constructed on the beach itself, coated in thick black pitch and used by fishermen to store nets. Each is stained with long creamy streaks of excrement courtesy of passing seagulls who must target them for maximum effect. Winched up to the high pebble ridge, sits the small fishing fleet resting and rusting after a night trawling the Channel. Apart from the seagulls, the only sign of life is a small shack selling the night catch. Even in the rain, it has a cluster of customers, raincoats buttoned and wellies keeping feet dry. In town, the one-mile promenade that commences at the grander East Pier Parade (gentrified by the down-from-London folk) and stretches westward to the nowhere-much where you and I are now, is known as The Front.
But wait. Let’s not ignore the Bulldog Cafe, the only building on the Channel side of West Pier Parade, standing upon a rock outcrop defiantly looking across the shingle beach and sea scape. Although only three floors, cafe beneath and living quarters above, plus a windowless basement (storage and loos that can overflow onto the beach), the Bulldog towers above the rest of the parade. At night, illuminated, it could be mistaken for a lighthouse. A lighthouse, as cafe proprietor John Smit tells his customers as they dig into a plate of bangers and mash with two fried eggs, baked beans, blood pudding, buttered toast (extra slices 25P) and HP sauce (the more audacious add ketchup), with a pot of steaming tea, is a beacon designed to warn ships off, to keep them at bay, not to welcome them into harbor. His analysis could be argued, but never in the Bulldog.
Walking briskly down the cliff from the bus stop or rail station, or ambling along from the rutted parking lot, Welcomers are assembling on the promenade not far from the Bulldog. Excitement is in the air, they are here to do good things, challenge the status quo. Everyone is dressed for the weather, several are equipped with state of the art binoculars and one is eagerly scanning the waves. Each wears a button and a face mask announcing Welcomer, in English or the other tongues spoken on the new frontier. In great sealed plastic tubs in one of the cars, the group has waterproof ponchos, gloves, socks, shoes, Mylar blankets, sanitary products, battery-powered cell phone chargers, and pamphlets in the usual languages explaining rights. Some have special skills, like Jessica who speaks Shona, though not as fluently as she would like, and French. Incoming boats are rumored to be out there, four of them, but nothing is visible yet.
This is Jessica’s sixth time out with Welcomers but she hasn’t yet greeted a single arrival. Last time their convoy of cars chased a boat down the coast but, by the time Welcomers reached the little harbor where the boat had docked without incident, another group was already handing out dry clothing and informing them about their rights of asylum.
Philippe, Welcomers’ regional coordinator, a strikingly tall man who rarely looks in Jessica’s direction or speaks with her, checks the names on his clipboard. “All aboard,” he says, and they laugh because, of course, there is no boat. The group moves toward the Bulldog. Jessica peers through a clear patch in the misted plate glass to the warmth within, hearty customers digging into their Full English breakfasts. She reads a sign taped on the inside of the door glass next to the faded Brexit poster, “No Masks”. A bell rings when Philippe opens the door and they step into the hum of the interior, snatches of conversation, crockery being stacked in a distant dishwasher, squirt of steam and a muted hits of yesteryear song Jessica recalls but can’t name. The rear windows overlook the sea, whitecaps, gulls swooping down on the shoals of sprats and sandeels, and distant container ships chugging in from the Irish Sea heading for Antwerp and Felixstowe. One by one, tables grow quiet as the breakfasters turn to see who has entered. A hush falls over the Bulldog.
Philippe, Welcomers’ debit card in hand, orders two teas and six coffees to go. The youth behind the counter, in a white apron with the cafe logo, is about Jessica’s age. She notes his nervousness as he glances at the older man waiting tables. The man nods and the youth lines up eight medium styrofoam cups. Customers return to their breakfasts, wipe a trail of yoke from a chin, stir in four sugars, peruse the menu and resume their conversations, but more quietly now with intruders in their midst.
“Don’t I know you?” Jessica speaks through her mask.
The boy’s hand shakes and he slops hot coffee over his fingers. He puts the cup down and runs cold water over his hand, drying it on a tea towel. “No, don’t think so.”
“Don’t be silly. Raymond. Raymond Smit. Raymond, you and I were at school together.”
The young man glances again toward the waiter and Jessica notices a similarity, the waiter is an older, stouter, version of the young man placing plastic lids on their cups. The waiter is preoccupied taking an order.
“Maybe. What with the mask… Help yourselves to sugar and milk.” Raymond points to a low counter.
Welcomers aren’t the only ones with high resolution binoculars. Cafe proprietor John Smit has an older model Swarovski Optik sitting on the countertop in the kitchen provided by Joe. Joe is an older man, veteran of what he calls the Rhodesian Freedom Fighters, a long-ago dismantled and disgraced paramilitary group that supported white minority rule. Back where he’s no longer a minority, Joe founded the Frontiersmen, a group of mostly older men and women who patrol the sea. “John, this Optik is the best. Seen action. Battle scarred.”
The Frontiersmen meet once a fortnight after hours in the cafe to discuss their plans for defending Fortress Britain. “Keep your eyes peeled, John. You’re our lookout, placed as you are in your high tower almost in the sea itself. The foreign scum is everywhere in their little boats. Keep vigilant. See anything suspicious, I’ll bring the boys ‘round.” He indicates the men and women at the table. “We’ll give them a welcome they won’t forget!”
If you or I were there, I mean we wouldn’t be would we? But let’s imagine. Let’s say we were a discreet presence looking down from above like hydrogen-filled party balloons clustered at the ceiling, we would hear the talk spill out into ethnic hatred, xenophobia, even anti-Semitism and anti-Irish sentiment which is strange since neither group is washing ashore in leaking dinghies. It would be difficult to imagine Joe, weighing in at fifteen stone with a left leg that doesn’t match the right, or Jane, his chain-smoking friend with the yellow fingers and perpetual cough, or Jasper, the bankrupt small-businessman who alludes to owning a gun that no one has seen and who struggles down (forget up) the flight of stairs to the Bulldog’s Gents, putting up much of a fight to protect their sceptered isle.
Hot beverages in hand, Welcomers return to the promenade. They congregate beneath the Japanese pagoda constructed, according to the plaque, by the Town Council in 1933. This exotic feature, more typical of the east side of the pier, has clearly not been maintained since, but does offer relief from the rain and is elevated, thus preferred by the look-outs. Eyes on the ocean. Jessica recalls the boredom.
Philippe, ever the raconteur, tells tales of previous rescues: him fearlessly swimming into freezing water to guide boats in, another time bravely passing babies hand to hand till they were safely ashore, and, yet one more time, selflessly helping refugees breathe life into frozen hands and feet, and, who knows when, ever so smartly eluding the Border Force. “The waiting gets to you,” he informs them. At twenty-three he is the sage. “You know they’re out there, poor buggers, but there ain’t nothing you can do till they appear. Or till you get intel.”
Raymond Smit, quiet at the best of times, had never told a soul, but three years ago when his headmaster informed him he would be attending after-school tutoring whether he liked it or not and he met his personal peer tutor, Jessica Chamisa, an upper six-former, he was… well that was the problem. Raymond was never very good with words. It wasn’t a sexual thing like other boys spoke about, locker room tall tales about things they’d like to do with girls, and it certainly wasn’t love. You don’t fall in love at sixteen. Even Raymond Smit knew that. But it was more of a generous warmth, like returning to the cafe after hours (when his father was out) on a February day. Freezing to the bone, you step in off West Pier Street and a satisfying glow engulfs you. An appreciation that someone is interested in you, silent Raymond. And shows you patience, and guides you letting you take your time, and listens when you speak. And remembers and reminds you about what you said last time. And makes you want to go after school to that special room off the library where you can spend two hours a week with Jessica Chamisa.
Jessica had never spoken about the boy. She had been told that the professional relationship was confidential. “The boy has a Statement,” Ms. Rivers, the special education teacher, told her. “A Statement is a legal document. Let me show you. But this is strictly confidential. Read it. Raymond responds in his own time.”
In the shelter of the pagoda, Jessica is puzzled about Raymond pretending to not recognize her, then recalls a comment Ms. Rivers had let slip. She had immediately apologized, “Jessica, that was unprofessional of me. Forget I said that. It’s idle gossip and there’s no evidence.” But Jessica couldn’t forget it. I hope I’m wrong, but he has a dominant father. He’s terrified of him. I hope there’s no physical abuse.
She peers out into the English Channel. No small boats. Apropos of nothing, Philippe is now telling another story about growing up in a banlieue on the edge of Paris. It seems he’s been quite the star in his own narrative for years. Jessica’s mind drifts to the project that Raymond was struggling with. He was required to interview an older person and Write a 300 word personal essay with descriptive words, paragraph indentations (use tab), proper punctuation, spelling (v. important, use spellcheck) and grammer.
“I ain’t know no older people.”
“You told me you work in a cafe. You must have older customers.”
“But I’m busy working, in it? Ain’t got time to talk.”
“How about family members.”
“They don’t talk to me.”
“I know it’s often difficult to talk to family. Tell me about your family.”
Raymond revealed that his great grandfather was living in sheltered accommodation on a fourth floor apartment five minutes walk from the school. “It’s got a lift but it’s out of order so Mum says I’ve got to do his shopping. I’m going ‘round tomorrow. Maybe he’d talk.”
The thing no one other than Jessica knows about Raymond, he muses as he makes a pot of chamomile tea with lemon wedges and four hot chocolates for Table 5, is that he may struggle with words, finding the right one, then spelling it correctly, then placing it in a sentence that makes sense, then doing all the other stuff like trying to make sure the action is happening at one time and we don’t jump from the past to the now to the future and back again, and we don’t try to cram too much into one sentence because that makes it difficult for the reader to make sense of what the fuck’s happening (and when you do that it requires extra punctuation and that’s its own blessed nightmare, I mean who can remember what needs an apostrophe and what doesn’t, as for commas, don’t get me started) is that he has near perfect memory for the spoken word and was able, all those years ago, to recall his great grandfather flawlessly without notes or a phone recording or anything other than his memory.
Raymond, you have a photographic memory. I envy you. I struggle to remember stuff. You, you’re a natural. True to character, he remembers Jessica’s words precisely, her intonation, facial expression, even what she was wearing at the time and her perfume. And now he realizes that, knowing this, she must wonder why he feigned not knowing her.
Jacob Smit was ninety-four when his great grandson knocked on his door with a heavy bag full of canned goods and boxes for the freezer and milk and eggs and a bunch of black grapes even though he wasn’t sick. Raymond was nervous, he scarcely knew this older man, had spoken to him once or twice at family get-togethers and had no idea if he could remember past yesterday. Raymond put the groceries away, following instructions about only using the upper cupboard’s lower shelf for canned goods and the freezer’s upper shelf for frozen goods. “Great grandfather…” even as he said it, Raymond knew it was strangely formal. He didn’t even know the older man’s name. “I have this project…”
Jacob needed little prompting. Let me tell you how I come to England. Only then did Raymond realize the old man’s English was accented. He spoke about the plane taking flak from anti-aircraft placements on the south coast. At first we don’t know. Don’t think it’s much. An engine burst into flames and they lost height fast, the pilot turned back to the English coast knowing he wouldn’t make it to France, and they caught sight of a ribbon of land in the moonlight, the country upon which they’d just dropped 3,500 kg of explosives.
We land on the sea. Land, not so much, more like crash into the water from too fast. The sound of tearing metal, sea water flooding the cabin. The engine flared up for a second or two, then the flames were swallowed. Darkness with hints from the moon glow. The sea was calm, almost no waves, gentle lapping. He couldn’t remember how he got out of the plane, just the shock of the water, the drag downwards below the waves, his clothing soaking up like a great sponge, his feet kicking desperately propelling him upward to the surface, breaking through to air, gasping into his lungs, the intense cold and the fear of drowning. Swimming toward moving lights on the beach. I knew they shoot me but I can’t let the water pull me under. I was swim toward my death, Raymond. As I swim closer to the beach, I hear voices. I don’t speak English good then so don’t know what they say. The soldiers dragged him out the water and threw him into the back of the truck. They searched for others but no one else emerged from the sea. He spent two years in a POW camp and three weeks after the end of the war he met his wife to be. Lovely girl. Her father own the cafe. The Open Arms. And I work there forty-one years. Happy place. The same cafe your father run. He change the name.
Surprised by this uncharacteristic outburst of fluency, Jessica reciprocated, telling Raymond that her own father also came to England because of war, not to fight in one but to clear up the mess after. He was doing landmine clearance in the Falkland Islands. He’d had a lot of experience back home in his country. The Falklands is where he met Mum. The same story as your great grandpa, just decades later. They married and she brought him to England, where I was born.
She helped Raymond choose words, build sentences, capture his senior relative and transfer him to the page, keeping his accented English and the richness of his memories.
Raymond’s father hands him an order for Table 7. His mind is not on the cappuccino machine and he squirts steamed milk all over the preparation area. He mops it up before John Smit notices and looks out the window to see Jessica and her crew huddled under the pagoda. They look cold. He wants to tell her something. It’s urgent. But it must wait because he’s at work now. What has his father told him time and time again about work?
Raymond recalls his final piece of writing word for word and can hear his great grandfather reading it out aloud even though the old man never did any such thing. No one read it except him and Jessica and…
“Raymond, this is brilliant. Look what you’ve done. See how you’ve improved. You could publish it.”
“In the school journal. Would you like that?”
“Let me think about it.”
Jessica recalled Ms. Rivers’ advice. Time passed.
Raymond nodded. “I’d like that.”
He shakes powdered cinnamon onto the cappuccinos. Three years ago he carried the printed version of his assignment in a purple folder into the cafe, expecting his father to be out. Jessica had bought the purple folder for him and, unlike other folders that were shoved far down into his book bag and forgotten, or left on a cafe table and ended up in the bin, he held it with pride. He would be a writer. Published in three weeks in the school journal. And the family story would be told. Heritage preserved. The old man would be proud.
“What you got there, boy. Show me.”
Raymond held onto the folder but his father snatched it out of his grasp.
“What’s this son? Keeping secrets from your old man?”
Jessica also remembers the narrative, can maybe reconstruct whole paragraphs, and wonders why Raymond had withdrawn his consent to publish, then abruptly stopped attending the after-school sessions.
The call comes through on Philippe’s phone. “Let’s go. Follow me.” Running for the cars in the rutted lot.
Raymond throws down his white apron and stamps on it, working in the floor grease. He’ll never wear it again. And walks away from Table 7’s cappuccinos. The bell rings as he heads out into the rain, running along the cracked concrete, off to fuck knows where.
Nigel Pugh is an educational leadership consultant working in the US and the EU. He has had live theater pieces performed, has written for children’s TV, and has been published in Adelaide Literary Review and LitBreak. Should you visit the Catskills, you may see him trail running.
© 2022, Nigel Pugh