Charles Crockford ’s footsteps echoed as he walked across the rusty, metal railway bridge. A steely fog had spread itself across Seatown and he could no longer see the trains creeping slowly below him although he could hear them. They seemed to rasp and groan. He walked carefully down the steps and paused at the bottom to get his bearings. Smudges of streetlamps trailed off into the distance along Lothian Road.
Crockford headed off down the cobbled street, past the rows of partially demolished terraced houses that looked like broken teeth in the wan light. He could just about make out a radio playing the latest episode of ‘Hello Cheeky.’ It was his wife’s favourite comedy programme and just the thought of that woman made his blood boil. Crockford ground his teeth and upped his pace.
He had been drinking cider with a few of the old boys in one of the bus shelters near the cemetery. One of them – Barky – was an ex-POW who they said suffered from shellshock. When he mixed the mother’s little helpers that the quack had given him with Old English cider Barky could be quite an entertaining old soak but sometimes he got stuck into singing the songs from his childhood over and over again. Tonight’s performance of ‘There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs Of Dover’ had certainly left a lot to be desired. It had been like fingers down a blackboard so, when the free drink had run out, Crockford had buggered off sharpish.
As he headed down Merry Street, Crockford could hear growling. Although he couldn’t see her in the darkness, he knew that Gertie Lark would be stood on her doorstep dressed in her stained flowered apron, a pair of rusty scissors in her hands, her dog beside her. His wife’s aunt had become a barber during the war, since all of the local barbers had been called up to fight, and she’d even kept it up for a while after peace had been declared. Still, each night, come rain or shine, Gertie stood on her step waiting for her husband Wally to come home even though it was more than 25 years after the war had ended and there was still no sign of him. Boudica, her rottweiler, was always at her side and the dog hated Crockford. The whole family despised him, he was sure. They never appreciated his talent.
Crockford muttered to himself. She was a mad old bird, that Gertie, but then the whole Lark family were off their rocker as far as he was concerned. Some blamed the Seatown bombardment during the Second World War but he didn’t know about that. He just regretted marrying into that batty brood. When thought about Marjorie, the acid in his stomach gurgled. She had never appreciated his writing, his dreams. His hopes. She never saw how his job at the Siemens factory was crushing him. He’d tried to make her understand but the bloody woman just didn’t listen no matter how loud he screamed. His novel would be big, he was sure of that. But all Marjorie cared about was playing bloody bills and popping a stupid bloody sprog.
It started to rain just as Crockford opened the door to The Shaggy Dog. The stuffy pub was warm and welcoming. It smelt of meat pies, beer and pipe smoke. Its brown and red colours were soothing. The pub was almost empty, probably due to the combination of the fog and the impending blackout, which would happen without warning like every other night. The bloody miners’ strike was taking its toll, that was for sure. Crockford thought the useless bastards should get another job if they don’t like the one they already have, but he usually kept that opinion to himself. Most of the idiots around Seatown didn’t share his view.
He took off his cap and muffler. Alice, the pub’s massive landlady, was stood behind the bar with her hands on her hips. She had her hair in a pink beehive and wore a glittery pink dress.
‘Alright Alice, are you off down The Rialto later?’ said Crockford.
‘Aye,’ said Alice. ‘As per usual. I’ve got me dancin’ shoes on, like.’
She lifted a sparkly pink leg to show a sparkly pink shoe.
‘Very glam,’ said Crockford with a sneer that was lost on Alice.
He checked out his reflection in the frosted mirror that hung behind the bar. He straightened his quiff as Cormac, Alice’s husband, came out of the snug with a tray full of empty shot glasses. His thinning hair was plastered down with Brylcreem and his white shirt stuck to his skin with sweat. He was breathing heavily.
‘The usual?’ panted Cormac.
‘Aye,’ said Crockford. ‘No change there.’
Cormac poured a pint of bitter and Crockford licked his lips.
‘Can I have it on tick?’ said Crockford, grinning. ‘I’ll pay you when I win the football pools.’
‘That will be right,’ said Cormac, grimacing. He held out an open palm.
Crockford paid for his beer and took it into the snug.
There were two old men sat in there. They were both smoking pipes and playing dominoes. Eric Ruby was a painter and decorator who always looked on the verge of a heart attack and Big Bill Lark, Crockford ’s father in law, was a retired copper. His bushy eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead and made him look permanently confused but he was as sharp as a razor and always made Crockford uneasy.
‘How’s tricks?’ said Crockford.
He sat down.
‘Not too bad. Mustn’t grumble. Eric here’s been down that London,’ said Bill.
‘Oh, aye, said Crockford. ‘How lovely. See the Queen, did you?
‘Near, as dammit,’ said Eric, grinning. ‘You can’t tell the lads from the lasses down there. They say all that glam rock fashion’s going to catch on up here sooner than later but I bloody hope not! The wife spends enough on mascara as it is without me chipping in!’
They all chuckled.
‘Things change, eh?’ said Bill, shrugging.
‘Yeah, but not always for the better, though,’ said Crockford.
‘Maybe. But I wouldn’t turn the bloody clock back, I can tell you. Those were real hard times I’ve lived through. Two world wars and the depression weren’t a barrel of bloody laughs, I can tell you.’
He was lost in thought for a moment.
‘How’s our Marjorie, by the way?’ said Bill. ‘I haven’t seen hide nor hair of her for weeks.’
Crockford ’s stomach gurgled.
‘Er, she’s not been well,’ he said. ‘Woman’s troubles, again, you know what they’re like?’
Bill glared at Crockford.
‘It that right?’ said Bill.
‘Aye,’ said Crockford. ‘There’s always something wrong with that woman these days.’
And then everything turned black.
The Reverend Harry Bones said a final prayer and emptied the collection box. He stuffed the money in his coat pockets and picked up his suitcase just as the church’s lights went out.
‘Oh, bugger,’ he said, as he hit a leg on one of the pews.
He furtively edged his way to the front of the church, opened the front door and stepped out onto Lothian Road. It was the darkest he’d ever seen it. He could hear a fog horn roaring over the Headland and just about make out the beams from the lighthouse. There seemed to be not a soul about. Harry locked up The Church of The Nazarene, sighed and walked down the street. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders but an even greater one had been placed on them. He looked at his watch and upped his pace. The train would be at the station at midnight and he hoped Marjorie would be there, too.
‘Oh, off I trot to the little boys’ room, then,’ said Eric. ‘Hope I don’t get caught short again.’ He chuckled and followed a path of flickering candles that led the way to the pub’s toilets.
There was only one lit candle in the snug. Crockford took the dregs of Eric’s rum and poured it into his beer. He hoped that his father-in-law hadn’t seen him.
‘Did you hear that Benny Trout’s looking for a butcher’s assistant,’ said Bill.
‘Oh, aye,’ said Crockford.
His stomach gurgled.
‘Do you not fancy it, then?’ said Bill. ‘Work’s work, you know? It might be a golden opportunity.’
‘I’m still on the sick, aren’t I,’ said Crockford. ‘And anyway, I’m too busy working on my novel.’
Bill tutted and Crockford could feel his anger brewing, ready to boil. He finished his drink and staggered to his feet.
‘Well, I’m off to the snake pit,’ said Crockford.
‘Say hello to our Marjorie from me,’ said Bill.
‘Oh, I most certainly will,’ said Crockford, pushing past Eric as he left.
Marjorie Crockford was glad she’d finished dying her hair before the blackout as she only had one candle left, and she didn’t want to waste it. She’d ran out of them the day before, and all the shops on Lothian Road had sold out because of the power cuts. She’d been lucky to get that last bottle of peroxide from the chemist’s shop, too. A new look was just the thing for this new chapter in her life. He husband would hate the new hairstyle, she was sure. He’d tell her that she looked like Myra Hindley or something equally as unflattering. Not that he’d get the chance to see it.
Marjorie had been listening to ‘Hello Cheeky’ on Radio 2 when, as luck would have it, her transistor radio’s batteries had died. Now all she could hear was the grandfather clock’s ticking. She poured herself another glass of sweet sherry, sat on the settee and waited for her husband to come back from the pub.
Crockford ’s front door jammed as he tried to open it but he slammed a shoulder into it and pushed it open. His bladder was ready to burst so he rushed into the living room, through the kitchen and then out into the back yard where the toilet was. He swore as he banged against the coalhouse door. Then Marjorie heard the toilet door creak open. She smiled. Crockford hadn’t noticed her sat on the sofa. He probably expected her to be in bed, waiting for him, as usual. But tonight was going to be anything but usual.
The clock struck eleven and Marjorie heard the knock at the door. She stood up and let her aunt Gertie in.
‘All set, petal?’ said Gertie.
‘Aye,’ said Marjorie. ‘It’s now or never.’
She tied the cashmere scarf that The Reverend Bones had given her around her bruised neck and walked into the kitchen. Gertie followed her.
Gertie stood behind the kitchen door holding her cutthroat razor. Marjorie held her breath as she heard the toilet flush. Crockford staggered into the kitchen at the exact same moment that the blackout ended and the kitchen lights flashed back on.
He shielded his eyes from the blinding glare.
‘Bollocks,’ he said. ‘What the bloody hell …’
Marjorie slammed a frying pan against the side of Crockford ’s head and he fell to his knees, groaning. She hit him again and Gertie moved quickly, grabbing his hair and reaching around and slicing Crockford ’s throat. She pushed him forward onto the tarpaulin covered floor.
Marjorie took off her blood splattered overall and pushed it into her suitcase. She put on her overcoat and fastened it but she still shivered.
‘Are you okay to sort this mess out?’ said Marjorie.
‘Aye,’ said Gertie. ‘It’s nothing I haven’t done before, eh? I’ve got enough chicken wire to tie him up nicely. Once I throw him in the sea the wire will slice him up and then the fish will finish him off. You know the score, eh?’
Marjorie ’s stomach turned.
‘I’d best be off then,’ she said.
The London bound train’s headlights cut through the fog as it pulled into the railway station. Marjorie could see The Reverend Bones smiling as she walked toward him. She could never get used to calling him Harry – she’d know him since she’d been a nipper, after all – but she expected that would probably change after the twins were born. A foghorn sounded and Marjorie shivered. Harry closed his eyes and said a silent prayer.
‘A fresh start, eh?’ he said, as he took Marjorie ’s suitcase from her.
‘I really hope so, Reverend,’ said Marjorie, relieved that she’d brought her aunt’s cutthroat razor with her, just in case.