The flashing coloured lights wheeler-dealed across the upright displays, further engendering misplaced hope by giving the punter the chance to pull the forelock of fate with the small mercy of manipulating the two-timing “flippers” at the side, returning balls into a whole new campaign of cascading, tricksy shenanigans: accumulating points towards an illimitable target, the biggest number you can think of, the size of which only God (and perhaps the owner of the amusement arcade) was aware.
But, now, the arcade is shuttered, the sea-front deserted and the heaving of autumn seas edging nearer to overflow, as the council cart, with a revolving pulse, yellows the night from its cabin roof. It’s touring the streets, with its bewhiskered paddlewheels churning up the gutters, freeing them from the sludge and detritus of summer: discarded buckets, sandcastle unionjacks, rude hats, regurgitated fish ‘n’ chip suppers, mutant condoms fingering out into spider shapes, crystallized candyfloss, like sea-creatures’ abortions, and soggy saucy postcards, scrawled over with undehivered “wish you were here”’s, picturing enormous bums, even bigger boobs and triple entendres...
Outside the Hotel Despond, there stands two men, once holiday-makers, no doubt, but now deserters from overdue homecomings and from the inevitable return to the treadmill that keeps their families in sunday dinners and the annual visit to the seaside.
Towards the top of the hotel, the electric sign still flashes on and off, certain of its letters missing. It fills the street with an intermittent red haze, illuminating the men’s faces, revealing their stone expressions and surly resignation. One of them curls his lips as he takes another drag from his last cigarette of the season, and says: “They’ll be battening down in Misericordia, by now...”
A third man has now approached them and, in theweaving lights from both hotel sign and sweep cart, he can be recognized as one of those accessories to the End of the Pier Show which, every night during the summer, entertained the pre-bingo audience … with clattering joanna and cheap talent competitions.
This man was the ventriloquist, a semi-professional, who spends the rest of the year working for the council on the sweep carts. His mouth does not move as he speaks: “It gets me through the endless winter, dreaming of all the hot summer fun we had, you know. Do you remember Ol’ Ma Manning? She showed her knickers twice a week, for a free go on the housey-housey. There were numbers all over them, all the sixes, clickety-click, seventy-six, sunset strip, hangman’s noose, Blind Pugh...”
The other men nod, but do not listen, for they are preoccupied with the dirty weather that is now threatening to come in off the sea -they wish they were back in Misericordia or Parsimony, further inland, where their children, even now, stare into the night, wondering when their daddies will come borne; their mummies have told them that they are still on holiday, perhaps the silly buggers have one more End of Pier Show to enjoy, the last of the season and, then, they will creep home, heads bent, to the duties to which all men must face up.
The ventriloquist has taken out his dummy and the rain drips down its plastic face.
“A gottle of geer, who wants a gottle of geer?”
The two men, bemused, disappear into the public convenience nearby which, by tomorrow, will be the last facility to be barred up for the off-season. One more night of relative comfort in the cubicles, one more night before decisions will need to be made.
The council cart is returning on the opposite side of the street, a lightship floating across the shimmering, swelling puddles; it will pick up the ex-ventriloquist at the corner of Litany Street, if he is not careful.
He listens to the rumpus coming from the end of the pier. The fat woman is playing a Russ Conway medley, the gap-toothed sit-down comedian is telling third generation ma-in-law jokes, Ol’ Ma Manning is getting all eager in her seat waiting for her big moment, the audience is clapping half-heartedly, for they’re only there for the bingo...
The seas are becoming heavier now like an army commissioned as an impatient vanguard of winter. The ex-ventriloquist speaks quietly, but the storm is growing steadily so noisy that he can hardly hear himself: “There’s something special about the sea. That’s where we all originally came from, after all…”
And, as if hypnotised by the mind-reading act that he always had to follow on to the stage, he strides along the planks that creak in the wind. Between their gaps, he can see blackboiling pools revolving within each other...
Through the useless turnstile, towards the darkened theatre, he is counting backwards from the biggest number he can think of ... and his dummy leads the way, on short stumpy legs.
Someone or other threw the switch on the hotel sign, and went to bed for the winter. The council workers locked up the public loo, one night earlier than normal, got back on board the sweep cart and drove it further inland, its yellow pulse gradually withdrawing its reflections from the empty sea.
(published 'Peripheral Visions' 1991)