International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dreamscapes
of the Gods
watched fascinated as the woman squeezed between tables, a plate
of sandwiches balanced precariously on a tea cup. She stopped at
the table across from his, carefully separated plate from cup and
lowered both to the plastic surface. Then she sat. A noisy child
ran past, knocking her chair. She frowned as tea splashed into her
Stan watched fascinated
as the woman squeezed between tables, a plate of sandwiches balanced
precariously on a tea cup. She stopped at the table across from his,
carefully separated plate from cup and lowered both to the plastic surface.
Then she sat. A noisy child ran past, knocking her chair. She frowned
as tea splashed into her saucer.
She was not a bad looker, plump but not fat, with the sort of round,
friendly face that made you feel you knew her. Mid fifties, he decided.
Twenty years or more younger than Dennis. She lifted the cup to take
a sip but put it straight down again. A brisk wind had blown up from
the south, rattling the cafe's metal sign. It was one of those late
March days on the coast, nice when the sun was out but chilly when it
went in. She looked around. Her eyes settled on Stan.
The nurse had left him in the outdoor area of Bexhill's De La Warr Pavilion
cafe. She had pushed his wheelchair up to a table with a view down the
beach, and disappeared towards Sainsbury's. Not that he minded. At least
there was life here, which was more than could be said of the nursing
home. The woman smiled. He nodded. The opening chords of 'Sussex by
the Sea' sounded from the bandstand on the terrace above.
Didn't I see you at the funeral?' she called.
'That's right,' he agreed.
'Nice service,' she said, her face taking on a look she clearly thought
appropriate. Stan shrugged.
'It was okay.'
'I thought the minister was very good when he talked about Dennis. Very
complimentary.' Her eyes searched his face for approval. Stan pursed
'He was alright.'
She turned away. Two young men in rowing gear were carrying a boat across
the promenade. The sun had broken through but a thick black cloud was
moving over the water from the direction of France.
'Had you known him long?' she asked. Stan gave a small, dry laugh.
'More than fifty years. We joined the Air force together.'
She nodded. 'He said he was in the Air Force. Did you leave when he
He shook his head. 'I stayed.' She smiled.
'I think he sometimes wished he'd stayed.' She finished her tea and
glanced across at his empty cup. 'I'm going for another. Can I get you
His eyes tracked her as she passed between the tables towards the small
indoor area. She moved easily despite the constraints of a tight dress.
She had the look of being well put together and was clearly comfortable
with herself. Just the sort Dennis would go for, Stan decided. Just
the sort they would both go for.
Aden was where it all started. Nineteen fifty nine. Two young aircrew
sergeants competing for the very few available women on the base. Angie
was one. The daughter of a warrant officer in catering. She was a lithe,
athletic young thing, dark hair, he remembered, with a heavily tanned
skin that used to glisten during those hot evenings in the mess. She
would enter that place on dance nights as if it was organised just for
her. Which, considering the attention she used to attract, it might
just have well have been.
'There's sugar in the saucer,' the woman said. Stan had been dozing.
He lifted his head as two cups descended towards his table. 'You don't
mind if I join you?'
She leant forward to pull out a chair, allowing Stan an eyeful of creamy
'Are you in the British Legion place then?' she asked.
'Dennis had the room next to mine,' he said and was briefly depressed
as he remembered the old sergeant major the matron was moving in that
morning. Incontinent, the night nurse had confided.
'I didn't know he was there until last week. I got a telephone call
from the matron. She said she found my name and telephone number in
his address book. Nice to know he still had it.' She sniffed, wrinkling
her nose. 'It's Avril,' she added. 'Perhaps he mentioned me?'
Stan shook his head. A trombone rasped as the band moved on to a medley
of military music.
He had been standing in the open air jungle bar that hot night, searching
the tables around the dance floor, as was his habit, when their eyes
met. There was, he still felt, a spark of mutual attraction. They danced
the first two dances of the evening. He could vividly recall her young
body against his, radiating its heart stopping mixture of heat and excitement.
She seemed impressed by his being aircrew, her eyes wide as he described
his job. It was flattering. But when he returned her to her table, Dennis
was waiting and that was it. Stan was forced to spend the rest of the
night watching the two of them from the jungle bar.
'We met in Bristol,' Avril explained. 'Must be twenty years ago now.
He was there on business. He used to go to Bristol twice a week from
London. Something to do with the building trade.'
'Alarms,' Stan prompted. Avril nodded.
'He said it was important. I was working as a receptionist in the hotel
he stayed in. That's how we met. He was such a gentleman.' Her voice
trailed and her eyes took on a distant, wistful look. The music from
the bandstand changed to a moodier, nineteen forties selection.
Angie didn't last. About a month after that first evening Stan saw her
at the beach club. She was standing by herself in the water looking
out across the shark net. She barely acknowledged him when he approached
and when she did eventually turn to speak, there was real distress in
'He says he doesn't think he should see me anymore,' she had blurted
out, her big, black eyes full of incomprehension. 'He said he's going
to be away a lot on dangerous trips and it wouldn't be fair. I said
I didn't mind, but he wouldn't listen.'
Stan could still remember his incredulity at his friend's gall. He didn't
show it, and he kept quiet about the officer's wife Dennis had secretly
taken up with. And Stan wasn't past offering Angie a little consolation
in the months before she returned to the U.K. It was, he now realised,
the start of a pattern.
There was a roar from the rowing club as one of the oarsmen attempted
to enter the boat and was tipped into the water. Several of the cafe's
customers stood for a better view.
'I found out he was married from the other receptionist,' Avril continued.
'She took a call from his wife while he was at the pictures with me.
He said he didn't want to tell me about her because she was sick. Dying,
he said. He didn't want me to feel sorry for him.' Her voice faded again
and her head turned away. There was laughter and applause as the second
oarsman followed the first.
'Did you know his wife?' Avril asked, gazing vacantly towards the activity
in the sea.
'I knew her,' Stan confirmed. He pulled the British Legion blanket around
his knees. The black cloud was touching land a half mile away, bringing
with it what looked like a heavy shower.
'He said they never really got on, that he only stuck with her because
of her illness.' She turned her head to look at him. 'He said he would
have left her except for the illness.'
Stan looked away. It wasn't a conversation he wanted to pursue. He turned
his attention to the west. Beachy Head had disappeared as the expanding
storm cloud swept along the coast. Most of the cafe's outdoor customers
were moving inside.
"We're going to get wet,' Avril said. 'Shall I push you indoors?'
A hot fug was developing inside the cafe. The tables were all taken
and a number of customers were standing by the windows clutching cups
and plates. Daylight was replaced by a dim half light as the squall
hit the promenade.
'Just in time,' Avril said.
Stan had been with Dennis on a number of postings after Aden of which
Malta was the best. Three years they were there. There were wrens, nurses,
teachers, raunchy tourists as well as the local girls. He had forgotten
most of them. The best, however, he did remember and of them Janet really
stood out. She was a navy girl, a petite beauty from the Sliema base.
A sharp lady who thought she could handle Dennis. And Stan began to
believe she was right. It might have lasted had Dennis not met Karen,
the wife of an expat oil worker away making his fortune in Libya. Once
again Stan was left to console the abandoned girl friend. Which he dutifully
did until she got herself posted back to Portsmouth.
'It was bad luck, her getting that illness. He had already said he wanted
to marry me. Do it properly he said. But he was too decent a man to
leave her when he found out about the illness. So we just kept on meeting.
Twice a week in Bristol. Went on for ten years.'
She was gently rocking the wheelchair. Moving it backwards and forwards
in short, sharp jerks, to Stan's great irritation. He wanted to say
something but she was lost to him, gazing through the steamed up window
towards some distant, unseen land. He didn't have the heart to bring
'Did you know her when she was ill?' she asked. 'It must have been awful
for Dennis, all those years of having to pretend. It was bad enough
for me.' She looked down at Stan. 'Do you think she could have known?'
Stan, petrified, gave a small, noncommittal shrug. The chair rocking
had stopped but her hand had settled on his shoulder, and she had moved
her face close to his to make sure he could hear her above the noise
of the cafe.
'I think she must have known something' she said. 'You can't hide these
things. It's not natural.'
Laughter came from the far end of the room. Stan leant forward to peer
through the window and caught one of rowers disappearing under the boat
for the second time. The squall was beating the sea to white frenzy.
Avril lifted her hand from Stan's shoulder.
'I never met her of course. But I knew quite a lot about her because
he used to talk about her. He needed to get it off his chest. I got
to know her quite well from Dennis. Ruth wasn't it?'
Stan closed his eyes. Rebecca was her name and she was the best of the
lot. By far. They were in Scotland when Dennis met her, just a few months
from his demob. She was a teacher at the local poly, trying to help
him get a few qualifications before he was shoved out on his backside
into the real world. It seemed to be serious this time. Stan was amazed.
He expected to be in a position to pick up the pieces once the training
was over, and was quite looking forward to it. But it never happened.
She even gave up her job and followed him down to London. They were
married within six months with Stan as the best man. Weirdest thing
he'd ever done. He'd almost felt cheated.
'Rain's stopped,' Avril announced. 'Shall I take you out again?' The
wheelchair spun round before Stan could reply and he was propelled towards
the door. The air was sharply bright outside; they could see all the
way to Eastbourne. The rowers were moving up the beach towards the club
house, carrying the boat above their heads. A pair of Gulls screeched
at each other from the cafe roof.
'It's too wet for me to sit,' Avril said, moving Stan back into his
position. 'And I have to catch my train.'
'It's all right,' Stan assured her. 'The Nurse will be here soon.'
'If you're certain.' He nodded. She picked up her bag but seemed reluctant
to leave. 'It's been nice meeting you,' she said. 'It was good to talk
to someone who knew Dennis.'
'Yes,' he agreed. She smiled.
'I know I'm being a bit forward, but perhaps I could come and see you
sometime. At the British Legion. If you want me to that is.'
'That would be nice,' he said.
The nurse arrived as Avril left. She was laden with shopping bags, which
were dumped on Stan's lap. Lidia was a cheerful Polish girl with an
easy sense of humour and a refreshing tendency to say exactly what she
'That one of Dennis's floozies?' she asked, pushing Stan towards the
'Where'd you learn a word like that, Lidia?'
'From Dennis of course. He told me all about his floozies.'
'He talked too much.'
'I thought it was funny, all those women chasing after him.'
'What else did he tell you?'
'Lots of things. About his divorce. How he messed it up with his wife.
I think he was still in love with her, you know.'
'You think so? His own stupid fault if he was.'
They stopped by the war memorial set between council gardens just above
the promenade. A man in a plastic mac was placing a wreath against the
base. The man stepped back, stood stiffly to attention and saluted.
'That's a nice thing the British Legion do,' Lidia said. 'Remembering
the old soldiers. Dennis would have been proud.'
'He would have laughed,' Stan retorted. 'He never thought of himself
as an old soldier.'
'You are too disbelieving, Stan.' She pushed the chair towards the zebra
crossing, Stan clinging to the shopping bags. 'You know, he never told
me what happened to his wife. Did you know what happened to her?'
Stan fixed his eyes on the pedestrian light, willing it to change. 'She
died,' he said.
'Did you know her very well?' Lidia asked. She shoved the chair forward
as the light went to green. Stan grunted.
'I knew her,' he said. 'She was my wife.'
© Keithleonard September 2009
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