Imelda walked slowly up the wooden pier, listening to the music surrounding her. Each painful step was a beat of a bass drum, accompanied by the natural rolling percussion of the waves below. The squawking gulls argued with the regular squeak-squeak-squeak of the wheels of the shopper trolley, she pulled behind her. The wind snatched at the sound of the creaking boards beneath her feet. There was music everywhere. Her legs might not work as well as they used too, but there was nothing wrong with her hearing. Nor her imagination, for that matter.
Imelda had always loved music. Not that awful tea dance nonsense, not Vera Lynn nor any of the other sing-alongs she’d had to endure at the Autumn Years Club, her friend June had dragged her to a few months ago. What made them think that people her age wanted to listen to that kind of music? She was born during the war, had lost both parents to it. But those songs were not her songs. They were not part of her history.
Her music was real music: rock and roll. The rockier the better. Stones, not Beatles.
One of the reasons she got involved with this church, was the music. None of the dull, mournful hymns she remembered half-heartedly singing as a child, accompanied by an out-of-tune organ. Imelda didn’t believe God would think himself praised by those dreary dirges. John – the preacher – would lead them in joyful song, his electric guitar plugged into a small but surprisingly powerful amplifier. Sometimes they had a full band: bass, drums, the works. On these occasions the church would shake with the power of sound and she couldn’t help but smile.
Her destination, the battered old building at the end of the Pier, had not only been the pride of Humpbuckle-on-Sea but had once been hailed as “South East England’s Number One Nightspot: Theatre! Dance Hall! and Restaurant!”. Imelda knew this, not only because a tattered poster proclaiming the fact still clung to the wall of the foyer, but because, a lifetime ago, it had been here that much of her youth had been misspent. The end of the Fifties and the beginning of the Sixties had been an exciting time for the young. Even here. The Stones had played here, on this very pier – in sixty two, or sixty three – Imelda couldn’t remember the exact date. They were called The Rollin’ Stones, then. The ‘g’ had been added later.
At the top of the building a plastic banner slapped against the old wooden sign. The bottom cords had worked loose, again. The words ‘The Kingdom Come Church’ could be seen briefly before it flapped upwards against the roof. Faded weather beaten letters could just be made out if you knew what to look for: “The Bell on the Pier”.
Joe – her grand-nephew, a good boy – had bought her a tickets to see the Stones at Hyde Park later this summer. She had introduced him to the music of the Stones, and a host of other bands too. As a boy Joe, had spent hours flicking through her vinyl collection, admiring the artwork of the covers as much as the music within. She had taught him how to care for the records, wiping each side of the album carefully before putting it on and gently lowering the stylus, and, when finished with, another wipe before putting it back into its sleeve. Joe now had his own collection, and sometimes brought her albums he thought she might like to listen to. She had helped shape his music taste, he said. Without her, he might have never discovered music. Or worse be a One Direction fan. He owed her, he said, big time. And these tickets were his way of paying her back. A real treat, for both of them. The coach trip from here was included. It would be a laugh. Bring back memories. Perhaps she’d bump into some of the old crew. He could try and find them on Facebook, if she wanted.
She wasn’t going. She had told him he didn’t want an old codger like her cramping his style. He should go with his friends instead, enjoy the day without her dragging him down. She wouldn’t be able to manage standing up for that long, not with her legs. He had said he’d thought of that: he was bringing chairs. And a picnic, they’d make a day of it. She had said no, had been a bit short with him, then. She felt bad about that. Just a bit. She kept remembering the look on his face. It’s OK, he had said. If she changed her mind, all she had to do was ask. There was even a spare. She could bring a friend.
Imelda didn’t really have any friends. Not like she used to. Time and marriage and life in general had got in the way.
The truth was that she was scared. She was afraid to leave this little town, even for a few short hours. Joe said something about her not wanting to get out of her comfort zone.
The door of the church was shut. Brian was late. Or if he was there he hadn’t opened up properly. She felt a mixture of feelings: annoyance and a strange rush of elation: she knew he would let her down – let the Church down, rather – and, once again, she had been proved right. He wasn’t a bad man, Brian. But his heart wasn’t in it, he wasn’t dedicated enough.
Imelda tried the handle on the large wooden door. Locked. She sighed and reached into her shopper trolley and pulled out the set of keys. The large key slid easily into the lock. There was a bit of a knack to unlocking it: she inserted it all the way, half-turned and then pulled the key out a quarter of an inch before completing the turn. The lock clicked and Imelda opened the door.
She felt for the light switch and then waited for the florescent tube to stop flickering. She tutted when she saw the blackboard was not leaning against the wall where it should be. Someone’ probably Josie, had left it on the far side of the foyer. Always in a hurry, that Josie: forever rushing home to look after one of her GrandKiddies, as she called them – much to Imelda’s irritation – or nipping off early to put on the tea for her husband, “‘cos he has to get down the pub early this evening for the Match”. Never mind that others had to work twice as hard. Imelda wedged the door open with the wooden peg (thankfully hanging where it should be) and pulled her shopper troller in through the door. The blackboard was awkward to move, she had to drag it across the floor and out through the door. She set it up so it would be visible to anyone venturing along the pier, and read through it to see that all of the lettering was intact:
Satisfied that nothing had been rubbed off, or added (the local kids loved to doctor the sign, once an entire week had gone by before someone spotted one of local wags had changed the name of the church to “Condom Cum”) , she went back inside and trundled her trolley through the foyer, down the corridor to the kitchen. Located at the back of the Church, the kitchen was large, poorly lit and probably dangerous. Imelda didn’t think the electrics would impress the local Health and Safety Officer. She filled the large kettle and took it over to the old gas cooker. Like the rest of the building Imelda could feel the past ooze from the walls. Almost half a century ago this kitchen would have been crowded: chefs churning out chicken or scampi for theatre goers, hungry for culture and fried food served in a basket.
Today, Wednesday, was not one of her usual days. As she lit the gas, using a match from the box in the drawer with the broken handle, Imelda felt mildly apprehensive. Wednesday, she realised, was an unknown quantity. She knew what would happen on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and (of course) Sundays, the days she was normally to be found at the church. On Wednesday anything could happen. Imelda liked routine: she was very much a creature of habit. Once impetuous, rash – a risk taker, even – she now liked – no, needed – her life to be ordered, predictable and safe. Like the blackboard: everything in its place.
While she waited for the water to boil she opened the cupboard below and took out the box of teabags. She put six in the pot. Her Nana would have slapped her legs twice for that. Once for not warming the pot, beforehand, and another one for using new-fangled tea bags instead of leaves. She had been a traditionalist, her Nana, free and easy with the back of her hand, unwilling to adapt to changing times. Imelda was the same age now as her Nana was when she died. Seventy seven. Had she become the woman she had both loved and hated? Imelda didn’t have a granddaughter to lecture and bully, but she shared other traits with the old woman. Uneasiness when faced with change not the least of them.
Back in the Sixties Imelda had been bold. She felt as if she had been infected by the energy of Mick, Keith and the others. She wanted more. And she wouldn’t find it here. She found a job in London and a room in a bed-sit on the Old Kent Road with three other women. There she found a freedom she had never had under her Nana’s regime. Imelda could almost believe the memories belonged to someone else when she thought about the risks she had taken, back then. In her mid twenties she had been older than many of her London friends. On her rare trips home, her nana told her she should settle down. She was wasting her time, she said, hands on hips. She was getting a reputation. Nice, decent men wouldn’t go near her, if she carried on the way she was going. She was getting old. She was going to be left on the shelf.
She would end up alone, her Nana said, finger wagging.
Imelda met Archie at a Small Faces concert in sixty five. Archie was a roadie with the support act. They got talking at the bar. Archie bought her a drink, and then a bag of chips to share as he walked her home, through the late night streets, right to her door. Before she knew it twenty three years had past. She still grieved for her children: two miscarriages, and one stillbirth. Archie died at the age of fifty five from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer he developed years after he stopped working at the asbestos factory.
Archie was a decent man. Not just her husband, he had been her friend.
She heard hurried footsteps in the foyer. The door to the kitchen swung open. Brian, flushed, breathless and tired looking, stood in the doorway, carrier bag in hand.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said.
Imelda didn’t reply immediately – letting him know she was annoyed through her silence, let it weigh uncomfortably heavy, something else she’d learned from her Nana – instead she poured the now-boiled water over the teabags, stirring them with a long spoon.
Brian came over and set the bag on the counter next to her.
“Sorry, I’m late,” he said, again, louder this time. He probably assumed she was hard of hearing: just another old biddy too proud, or vain, to wear a hearing aid. People were quick to leap to conclusions. People were far too quick to judge.
“Well,” Imelda said, with a sniff, “now you’re here you can make yourself useful.” She indicated her shopper trolley with the spoon. Brian nodded and began to empty it.
“Snap!” he said, as he pulled out a packet of iced buns. He smiled and produced an identical pack from his bag.
“Is that why you’re late?” Imelda said. “Josie told me, she always got the buns on a Wednesday.” She looked at Brian through narrowed eyes. “I caught the early bus especially,” she said.
“No harm done,” Brian said. He was good at ignoring her irritation. Archie had been good at that too. Sometimes it had made her so angry it tipped into laughter. “Means we can eat one before the punters arrive.”
Imelda sniffed again, and went to pick up the pot to put it on the tea trolley.
“Let me do that,” Brian said.
“I’m old,” Imelda said. “Not incapable.” But she let him do it.
“You’re neither,” he said, lifting the pot. His hands shook as he put it down on to the trolley and some tea erupted from the spout. “But you are a lady. And my mother taught me good manners.”
“Some people might describe that as sexist, Brian. I didn’t burn my bra for nothing, you know.”
He laughed. They both did. His laugh became a coughing fit. He pulled a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, one hand over his mouth. Out of the corner of her eye, Imelda saw him check the contents.
“Did you?” he asked, eventually. “Burn your bra, I mean.”
“I was sympathetic to the cause. But I’d bought that bra myself, and knew how much the bloody thing cost.” Another thing she’d learned from her Nana: waste not, want not.
There was a silence afterwards. Both of them began loading the trolley with mugs (something else her Nana would not have tolerated: tea should be drunk from a cup or not at all). Brian began to whistle. He wasn’t very good: tuneless and without rhythm. It took Imelda a few bars to recognise “Paint it black”.
“I saw them play here, you know,” she said, for something to say.
“The Rolling Stones?” Brian said. “Here in this little town? I never knew they played here.”
“Right here in this building. Sixty two, I think.”
Brian looked around him, as if seeing the place in a whole new light. “Wow,” he said. “That must have been some gig.”
“It was the talk of the town, for a while afterwards. The local vicar said it heralded the beginning of the End of Days. Perhaps it did. It certainly changed my life. I wouldn’t have met my husband if I hadn’t come that night.”
“He was a roadie, wasn’t he? That’s what Josie told me.”
“Did she? Well, Josie says a lot of things. But in this instance she’s right. He didn’t roadie for the Stones, though. I didn’t meet him here. It was in London, a few years later. Seeing the Stones here made me want to see more. Do more. Be more. Living in London made that more likely than living here.”
They were silent for another minute. Brian looked pale. Grey even. His hands were shaking again. Imelda cleared her throat.
“Are you alright, Brian?” she said. “Have a seat. You look dreadful.”
For a second, she thought he would laugh it off: thanks very much, with friends like you who needs enemies. The sort of thing Archie would have said.
“No, not really,” Brian said, sitting down on the stall. He took a deep breath and then looked Imelda in the eye. “The reason I was late was because I had my second dose of chemotherapy. I’m alright,” he said , quickly. “I had a small tumour removed and the chemo is just to make sure, the doctors say. To get rid of any stray cancer cells. Make sure it doesn’t spread. It’s just slowed me down a bit. Knocked me for six, so to speak.”
“I didn’t know. Sorry, Brian.”
“You weren’t to know. No one does,” Brian said. A smile: “I kept it from Josie on purpose.”
They laughed again, this time forced, uncomfortable.
“I guess, it is a good thing,” Brian said, after a moment. “In a way. I think I had taken it all for granted. I am fifty seven, and I have never really done anything. Never been anywhere, apart from Spain on a package holiday. It’s made me think about things. I mean, we’re all terminal when you think about it. All of us are going to die. We just don’t know when. So you have to live your life.”
“Yes, you’re right. Of course you are.”
“I’ve started one of those ‘bucket lists’. You know a list of all the things you’d like to do before you die. I’m going to take some time off work and I’m going to see a bit more of the world. Whilst I can.”
They wheeled the trolley through to the little room, at the front of the building. Chairs were already in place, ready to receive those souls who wanted a free cup of tea, and to talk to a friendly face.
Brian was right. Time was precious, it was foolish to waste it. Imelda had spent too long stuck in the rut of routine. If she didn’t want to become her Nana (and she certainly did not want that) she would have to make more of an effort. She would phone Joe, when she got home, she decided. Thank him, properly and tell him she was going with him to Hyde Park. And if he still had a spare ticket she would buy it for Brian.
This story is part of a series of stories written about people living in the fictional seaside town of Humpbuckle-on-Sea. You can find out more by visiting Humpbuckle.Me