S. J. Butler – The Flotsam Café

She came to the sea because she had nowhere else to go. She packed one bag and walked out of the door and she just kept on going. She bought a ticket as far as the line would take her and when she got there she stepped off the train, leaving its dusty seats and gritty-eyed windows, Kasey4Con finger-written in the grime, and she walked out through the ticket barrier and the once-white-tiled underpass, past the pound stores and the pale people with tight faces who surely never saw the sea and its light from one month to the next, and she kept on going until the light, the light just opened everything out and there was the sea, as wide as her arms could stretch, as far as her eyes could see, and further. So she sat down on the pebbles and she watched it.

[private]The sea breathed slowly in and out, grey surface smooth, almost unwrinkled, some membrane holding it tight fit to burst. Or maybe there was nothing there, she thought, nothing left to make it move; the sea had come to the edge like her because it too had nowhere left to go and then it had sat down and watched.

But she was wrong, there were tiny movements, flickers where a whip of water skipped up for a moment, white against the metal greyness, then let go of the air and fell back to the smoothness. And where it fell back into itself it became a frothiness gliding away from the sky, towards her, sheening sideways, not looking where it was going till it reached the pebbles.

She put a hand down, let it pick a pebble, felt its heft, its smoothness, the pit in one side like a hole dug out of a potato – dug out of cold solidity. She flung it overarm into the smoothness and it dropped, circles spreading out from its brief centre, and vanished, back to the sea floor beneath the water.

For the first time she felt the cold and the drizzle and she hunched into herself, knees tight against her chest, arms wrapped round them, head low into her shoulders. She wasn’t ready to go yet.

She waited for the tide to come in to her, for the edge of the sea to touch her shoes, and by the time it did the sky was darkening, a faint stain of orange on the greyness out on the horizon to the west. She pulled herself to her feet, stiff from the knobbles of the beach that had pressed itself into her. She walked along the water’s edge, pacing the tide line before turning up the steepness of the beach, pulling herself up the shingle bank. Pebbles rattled as she dislodged them, creaked where her feet crushed them together. At the top, she climbed the weed-covered concrete steps to the promenade and for the first time looked about her.

Lights glittered from the seafront shops, running out into the puddles on the pavement. A glass door opened, welcome sign swinging on its string, and an elderly couple stepped out, arm in arm, followed by the clatter of cups and spoons. She crossed the road and peered in through the steamed-up window. Yellow formica tables, cruet sets, vinegar bottles, a skinny woman thin-mouthed behind the counter, lifting and wiping under a dish of pink and white iced buns. A laminated menu sellotaped beside the door, ‘Flotsam Café’ it said, ‘Fish and chips and a cup of tea £3.50’. She went in and sat down at the table by the counter, nearest the heater on the wall, clasping her bag on her lap.

“Can I help you love?” The woman’s voice was softer than she’d braced herself for. She put her bag by her feet and closed her eyes while she waited for her food, listening to the sizzle of the boiling fat as the chips went in, and the spurt of water from the urn as the woman filled the teapot and placed the cup, clatter upon the saucer.

Heat and steam woke her, rising from the mound of fish and chips the woman had placed in front of her.

“You look frozen,” the woman said, and she nodded yes, no words coming. She seemed to have left them behind, forgotten to pack them. She smiled her thanks and began to eat.

She took her time, putting off the moment when she would have to pay and leave the warmth of the café.

“Another tea, love?” the woman suggested, and she almost said yes.

“It’s on me – there’s a couple of cups left in the pot, and I’m having one myself before I close up, so don’t you worry. We’ll share the pot.”

And the woman slid into the chair opposite and poured them both a cup, raising an eyebrow to check if she wanted milk and then sugar, and stirring them in for her.

“You look like you’ve had a hard day”, she said. “Got far to go?”

And that was how she came to stay in the room above the café, washing up for rent, mopping the floor, emptying the fryer, drinking tea each evening with Maureen who was on her last legs, running the place on her own these days.

Every day the same people, in and out like the tide. Tommy, shaven-headed, love and hate tattooed across thin scabbed knuckles, first at the counter every morning, calling her Miss and looking at the floor. Whispering Miss Greenhow, a tiny wren-like bundle inside her brown woollen coat, hopping from foot to foot. Tea and a biscuit, please dear, the only things she ever said. Lara, yellow-white skin and ill-bleached hair scraped tight, dark rings below her eyes. They rarely came in at the same time, and kept themselves to themselves, sitting alone at their tables, slowly drinking a single cup of tea over an afternoon, or gazing out of the window at the passers-by while a coffee grew cold in their clasped hands. Yet she felt they knew each other.

She once asked Lara where she was from, but Lara just looked back at her blankly, and in this way she began to know the rules of the Flotsam Café – everyone was welcome, and you never asked a direct question unless it was “Tea or coffee, love?” or “Milk and sugar?”.

There were other customers, of course, but most of them were visitors, come to walk on the beach in the winter wind and take photos of the fishermen and then go home, back inland. Sometimes the fishermen themselves came to pass the time of day with Maureen, solid men who stood to drink their mugs of tea by the counter, trading jokes and gossip before striding back out to the beach and their boats.

In the lull before the lunchtime trade she too would head for the beach, cutting between the net sheds and finding a line through heaps of plastic crates, rusting tractors, floats and winches to the top of the shingle to watch, if she was lucky, the boats come in.

Drawn up on the beach, the small boats’ fat bellies and stumpy sterns were foolish. But out in the surf their sides were strong, buffeting their way through to the deep water, nets hanging from the spars, the ragged black flags of the buoys flapping in the wind. And who wouldn’t want such a boat when coming home to land meant rushing at the shingle beach through the churning waves, as though fleeing a demon, aiming her bow straight at the strand – no safe harbour here – and crashing her into the pebbles, into the arms of the waiting winch boy on the stones below?

It never failed to move her, the meeting of boat and beach and the men who leapt into the water and onto the shingle, from sea to land and back.

And when the boat had been towed up across the pebbles and away from the edge she would walk along the high water line tracing the lacy fringe of flotsam that wandered along the beach, rising and falling with the winter’s tides: plastic bottles, tresses of orange and blue rope, nylon, severed tangles of bladderwrack, scatterings of strawberry blond crab shells, cork, polystyrene, masses of polystyrene always, shoes, once a lifebuoy, the name of its boat scrubbed to greyness by the sea. Hidden in amongst, slivers of timber, shaped, softened and exposed by the waves, the sand and the wind to perfect smoothness. She left the big bits. In her pocket each morsel of wood was snug in her hand as she stroked off the last particles of sand, her fingertips finding stilled growth rings, nail holes, the curves of tree fish carved by the sea. She carried them back to the café, arranged them along the windowsill, and gradually, other flotsam appeared, shards of misty glass, fishing floats, a cluster of cuttlefish bones, brought by Tommy, Miss Greenhow, Lara, those others who came to drink their tea while looking out to sea.

And so her days passed between beach and café, café and beach and the year turned. The days grew longer, and the café no longer lit the pavement when they opened the door to sluice out the floor bucket at the end of the day and to let in the fresh air and the evening light.

At night, she dreamt of sweeping in with the crunch and gurgle of the waves as they ran up the shingle, and of wriggling back down with them through the deep pebbles, seeping out and into the ocean.

As March drew on, though, the spring moon grew and shone into her bedroom window and she slept less and less. Each night the moon became more vast in the sky, the tides grew higher, and by month end she lay nightly swollen, restless and awake as the sea lapped closer and closer to the promenade wall.

Finally, on the twenty-third, the full moon rose. The spring equinox, Maureen said, the highest tide of the year, a night to put out the sandbags if the wind blew from the south.

All day she felt the moon waiting behind the clear blue sky until the sun went down, waiting to draw the sea, to lift it up and up, tighter and tighter, higher and higher. She waited too, and just before midnight, she crept down the stairs and out into the huge moon’s strange brightness.

There was complete silence. The trippers were gone, the fishermen slept. Even the sea was quiet.

She walked across the promenade, bare feet soundless, and looked out. The beach had gone, covered in a gleaming sheen of almost motionless water. The sea had come to her, silver, satin, vast. She watched it, breathing with its slow swell. After a while, a small wind rose and lifted the very edge of the water up and over the promenade, a delicate veil draping her toes as it trickled back down over the wall. The sea was quiet again. Then another gust, another net of water rising softly into the air and falling back, and again and again, a subtle rhythm, its beat building as the wind grew and the tide continued to rise, and sea began to chafe at the wall below her, rubbing against it, rushing back and forth in little sallies, as wind and the tide rose in concert, churning, broiling, a desperate mass, that built and built and in one great burst exploded over her. Water ran through her hair, her ears, her eyes, into her mouth, smothered her, and fell, rushing with a roar back over the wall.

As it drew itself up for another rush she looked along the wall and through the spray saw Miss Greenhow, quite close, standing still for once and clasping the promenade rail, her coat glistening with water droplets in the moonlight. Ten yards further on Tommy was gazing fiercely out to sea, Lara further still, perched on the curve of the wall beyond him. Behind her, and far into the distance, figure after figure stood, waiting for the waves.[/private]

S. J. Butler lives and works in East Sussex. Her first short story, The Swimmer, was published in the Warwick Review in December 2010, and then in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2011. She blogs somewhat random stuff at underthebookshelf.blogspot.com.

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