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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dreamscapes

Twilight of the Gods
Keith Leonard

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.

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 his lips.
'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 did?'
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 one?'

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 white cleavage.
'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 her face.
'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 her back.
'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 thought.
'That one of Dennis's floozies?' she asked, pushing Stan towards the main road.
'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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