By David Harrison
David Harrison's first novel, SINS OF THE FATHER, was released earlier this year by Crème de la Crime. When not writing, he's currently setting up a specialist cleaning business and doing consultancy work. He lives in Brighton with his wife and two children.
He stood in the doorway of the sad little shop and wondered what he would steal. A security mirror in the corner showed his distorted reflection, like something from a circus, but he didn't worry about that. The counter was unoccupied, the single electronic till waiting like a prize.
To his right was a deep freeze containing ice creams, fully stocked for a summer that hadn't arrived. The walls held shelves of newspapers and magazines, as well as a rack of dog-eared greeting cards and some tacky seaside gifts. Basic foodstuffs were on the central unit, with confectionery displayed each side of the counter; cigarettes and tobacco on high shelves behind it.
What a dump, he thought. What a place to spend your life.
Behind him a half-hearted drizzle left smudges on the glass door. A bus stopped by the pub to disgorge its last passenger and then did a U-turn, the driver altering his destination board for the return route. A gust of wind rattled the letterbox, bringing a whiff of diesel freshened by sea spray.
In a sudden rush he planted his hands on the counter and tried to vault over, but his left leg caught the edge of the worktop. He fell awkwardly and banged his elbow on the side of the till.
The door opened as he collapsed behind the counter. Jill Lemon hurried forward, a hand raised in front of her mouth. As she reached the counter he sprang up, a la Basil Fawlty, and faked a smile.
“Paul, are you okay?”
He pushed his thinning hair back from his face. "I wanted to see how easy it would be to get over.”
“Not very, by the look of you." She turned towards the magazines, perhaps to spare his embarrassment. She was in her mid thirties, matronly but very attractive, with a sharp sense of humour. And married, of course.
"I hate to say it, but you don't have the figure for gymnastics.”
He patted his belly, which hung out over his jeans. "Too many of your sandwiches.”
“My sandwiches are perfectly healthy. It's all those doughnuts.”
“And the lifestyle.”
"Very bracing out there today. Take yourself off for a long walk."
He nodded with little enthusiasm. "I might."
"Sound as if you mean it!"
"I'm too old for exercise."
She laughed. "What are you, forty-three? Forty-four?”
"I feel about a hundred."
"At a hundred you'll be dead. You want to get out there before it's too late." She turned back to him, having chosen Marie Claire and Heat. "Had any interest in this place?"
He snorted. "You're joking. I think the agents have given up."
"And what about Wendy?"
“Same as ever."
"Oh dear. You should still go and see Tom. Take him out somewhere."
"I can't just turn up. Anyway, it seems to make it worse."
She dropped the magazines on the counter and delved in her purse. She had long elegant fingers, free of jewellery and kept scrupulously clean for preparing food. He was seized by an impulse to beg her for sex, but the idea died in his throat.
She looked up. “Pardon?”
"Unhealthy specimen, aren't you? All the more reason to get some fresh air." At the door she turned and smiled. "Only ten minutes to go."
Yeah, he thought. Only ten minutes. And then a lifetime.
He watched her hurry away, her body curled against the wind. He could still go after her, suggest a drink together, but he knew he wouldn't. Her husband was a big surly builder with hands like mallets.
He loathed this godforsaken little seaside town, so lost in the past that it still had half-day closing. But everyone else in the parade shut up shop religiously at one o'clock, so there was little point in staying open. Anyway, as much as he hated shutting on Wednesdays, he hated shopkeeping even more. He hated his life, that was the problem.
Perhaps this afternoon was the ideal time to end it all. God knows, he had thought about it often enough. Throw himself off the cliff. A bit of exercise on the way up, then a quick descent into a churning sea. That enough fresh air for you, Jill?
It was his ex-wife he really liked to picture, as the police broke the news. "It's my fault," she would whisper. "I left him to rot in that shop, and it killed him." And then she'd have to find a way to break it to Tom.
Tom. That was the tricky part. Imagining Wendy's pain produced a stab of pleasure, but the thought of his son's grief horrified him. Even though she did her best to poison the boy against his own father, he knew Tom still idolised him. And worse than the grief, he'd grow up believing his father was a coward. A man who couldn't face life.
Ah well. Maybe not today, then.
The wind hurled rain at the glass. At least the weather gave him an excuse to stay inside. The paperwork was stacking up but he knew he would just lie on the couch, drinking coffee and watching inane television. “And remember, the clues are there as we go… through the keyhole!”
Better than death, but only just.
Ten minutes till they close. Nothing wrong with being nervous. You need nerves, Tony reckoned. Nerves are what make you do a good job. Cut out all the distractions, get your brain centred on the challenge ahead.
It’s only a bit of shoplifting. Nothing valuable, they told him. You're not after robbing the till or nothing. Just a few bits and pieces and away before he knows anything's gone. Chocolate bars, sweets, something they could share down the beach.
And Ryan wanted a porno mag. "Not fucking Playboy. Something really dirty." He wasn’t so keen on that. Too conspicuous, having to go up on tiptoe to reach the top shelf.
But it wasn’t like he had much choice, not when he thought about the alternatives. If he didn’t show up with the goods, the taunting and bullying would only get worse. Here comes Whiny Wayne. Wayne the Wanker. Twisting his ears and punching him in the kidneys, stabbing him with their pencils and compasses, even once holding a cigarette lighter to his face and threatening to burn him.
If he did this one thing, all that would end. He'd be one of them, one of their crew. They’d already promised he could hang out with them for the rest of the holiday.
If he completed the test.
He wished he could have asked Tony for advice, but his brother was going through one of his lows, sitting round the house all day, barely moving, not eating or changing his clothes, flying into a rage if you tried to speak to him. Sam and Ryan thought Tony was a headcase, and that was without knowing about the other stuff, the stuff he did at night. Wetting his bed and trying to smash the house up. Screaming if you turned the taps on too quickly and made the pipes creak.
They should never have invalided him out of the army. Sometimes it made Wayne want to cry, the unfairness of it. His brother had always been a hero to him, especially after Dad ran off with the woman who cut their hair. It was Tony who got him into war games and survival magazines and books about the SAS. He'd always assumed he would follow his brother into the army when he left school, but now he'd most likely follow him on to benefits instead.
He pulled his coat together and shivered. There was a biting wind off the sea and it was raining again. He didn't want water on his glasses, steaming up when he went inside. The woman had come out and gone back inside the cafe, but still he waited, pressing into the doorway and promising himself: just another minute or two.
And tonight he'd tell Tony all about it. Even if Tony was still on a low, he'd have to be pleased that his little brother had finally done something brave. Wussy Wayne robbing from a shop, he'd definitely be proud of that.
And then there was the Secret. They shared it now.
When Paul was thirteen the summer seemed to last forever. He remembered the smell of melting asphalt as he walked home from school. His mum on the sofa, sighing over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. The pik-pok of the tennis ball drifting out to him as he lay on dusty grass and let the heat blast his mind free of worries. The teachers he hated, the homework he couldn't be bothered to do, the bullies who ambushed him behind the science block: all fading into the drone of exhausted birds.
Living for the school holidays, six long weeks of swimming and cycling and roaming the countryside with his best friend, Ricky Foster. And then girls: Susan from Hertfordshire who gave him his first French kiss, his first clumsy grope. Going to bed so happy and excited because it felt like the summer would never end, and even if it did, well, there would be lots more to come. He had his whole wonderful life ahead of him.
Now, three decades later, he stood at the door with his nose against the glass, a little cloud of condensation slowly obscuring his view of the rainswept parade. That whole wonderful life had been reduced to a drab convenience store which consumed his time and energy and gave him back, he had recently calculated, only slightly more per hour than his papergirl earned.
The shop had been up for sale for nearly three years but in that time there had been only two serious prospective buyers. Ironically the last of these had been a quietly spoken man, a bit older than Paul, attempting to build a new life after the double blow of redundancy and a failed marriage. Three weeks before completion he met someone at a Coldplay concert and moved to Newcastle with her instead.
That was over a year ago. Since then all he’d had was what he called Daltons Weekly Dreamers, bored with the nine-to-five and fantasising about their own little piece of retail heaven. They rarely went beyond phoning for the details or making a furtive anonymous visit, coyly buying a newspaper while gazing far too intently at the paintwork and light fittings.
So it looked as though he was never going to sell. He was here for life.
He sighed, shut his eyes and rested his forehead against the cool glass. It all seemed so hopeless, and yet that summer was only moments away in his mind. He was young, he was bright, he was energetic…
Now I can’t even vault the counter. Couldn’t rob my own bloody shop.
A memory surfaced, prompting a wry smile. He had shoplifted once, after his friend Ricky was shortchanged. They planned it carefully, Ricky diverting the shopkeeper while Paul stole a couple of horror novels. Stephen King, or was it James Herbert? They were lucky not to have been caught. The last he’d heard, Ricky was a lawyer, probably raking it in—
His recollection was jarred as the door bumped against his head. He opened his eyes and found a pimply, bespectacled teenager trying to come in. Retreating, he checked his watch: five to one. Probably the last customer of the day. He headed back to the counter.
“Go go go!” Wayne imagined his brother screaming, rifle in hand, leaping from a concealed position and launching himself at the enemy. He was at the shop before his puzzled brain had accepted that he was really going to do it, not just buy some chocolate and tell them he stole it. He felt sure they'd know: it would show in his face.
And there was the porno mag for Ryan. The fucking magazine.
He pushed against the door and met resistance: closed. He was too late. Mission aborted.
Then he saw the face against the glass, flushed and shiny. The shopkeeper turned away as if he’d been caught at something. Wayne pushed the door open, entering the shop on legs that now felt like they might give way on him.
"We're closing in a minute," the shopkeeper muttered, seeming to grow in confidence as he got behind the counter. "No time for browsing."
"I-I'm not," Wayne stammered, his face burning. He absorbed the man's suspicious gaze and used it to spur some anger, some confidence of his own. Miserable bastard. No wonder the place was run-down, if this was how he treated customers.
He studied the shelves of magazines: at eye-level it was women's stuff, then football and golf. Above that, computers and video games, motorbikes and photography. Then the top shelf: a mind-blowing array of tits and arse. He hesitated. He had no idea which ones were dirty enough for Ryan. Just as long as it wasn't Playboy, he supposed.
"Buy if you're buying," the shopkeeper snapped. A jangle of keys taunted him.
Stretching on tiptoe, Wayne pulled out the first magazine he could reach, his hand so clumsy he nearly dropped it. His other hand went to his pocket, and as he heard the shopkeeper begin to protest, his fingers closed gratefully around the Secret.
He'd only discovered the gun a few weeks ago. It was a Browning 9mm pistol. Tony swore it was a replica, said he’d beat the living shit out of him if he told anyone, but the next day he caught Wayne playing with it and had to admit it was real. This time he threatened to break both his legs and burn all his comics if Wayne breathed a word. Then he hid it somewhere different, but Wayne soon found it again.
Now he brought it out and took aim. He was shaking like crazy but it didn't matter. He had a gun. He was in control.
Paul felt something was wrong as soon as the lad walked in. The way he moved, the way he breathed: you could feel the nervous energy raging around him. He'd had kids like this before, trying to steal sweets or cans of drink. Or else buying cigarettes under age, not that he minded too much about that.
When the boy reached up for a wank mag, Paul shook his head. "No way," he said, almost to himself. The lad must think he was stupid.
And then suddenly there was a gun, not a toy but a real gun, a real gun in his shop, in the hands of a wild-eyed, trembling teenager.
All he could think of was Tom. His little boy. He had so much to tell him, so much to warn him about life: how it changes, how it goes wrong, how it manages to be so precious and yet so casually squandered. He knew he’d never been much of a father, but never to be there at all…
The concept of a world moving on without him was unthinkable. His mind disengaged. The kid was speaking to him but he couldn't make sense of the words, he could only hear an inner voice pleading not to die: I'll be so different I'll cherish what I have I'll never think about suicide again just let me live let me live let me live.
Wayne burst from the shop and vomited into the gutter. He was clutching a handful of chocolate bars and had the magazine under his arm. Wiping bile from his chin, he broke into a staggering run towards the promenade. Rain stung his face but he was glad of it: less likely to be anyone about. He needed time on his own, to get his head sorted before he met up with Sam and Ryan.
As he got his breath back, and his heart started to slow down, he realised he actually felt pretty good. There was something different about him, like he was bigger somehow, stronger; and he knew the others would sense it. He wasn't going to be bullied anymore. Wasn’t going to take any shit from anyone.
And he didn't think he'd be identified, not with the state the shopkeeper was in. He’d totally lost it, worse than Tony after one of his Kosovo nightmares. The look on the bloke's face as he emptied the till, throwing out money like a maniac, even though Wayne plainly said he wasn't after the cash.
In the end he'd taken a tenner more out of politeness than anything, then helped himself to the chocolate and left. And all the time the guy was sobbing and babbling at him, saying he was sorry and calling him Tom. Like who the fuck was Tom?
David Harrison ©2006
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