Summer is Hell here.
Winter is the only time to be in this place. On a wet night preferably.
The dark sea, flattened by rain, laps against the long curving beach. White painted iron railings and ill-lit weather shelters recede into the mist. An amusement arcade, boarded up, sits like a blind man watching nothing. The Grand Atlantic Hotel, a vast corroding edifice, looms over the deserted esplanade. A torn canvas banner flaps over its darkened entrance announcing the presence of the Brotherhood of Magicians Conference. Bedroom windows stacked up to the murky sky are but black patches.
The magicians are long in bed.
They’ll need steady hands in the morning.
The clock tower strikes on the hour.
An approaching motorbike cuts through the sound of rain water smacking the tarmac. The red Yamaha rounds a corner slowly, ominously, powerful as a shark. A metallic titanium flip-front helmet glints under the street lamps. Moulded gloves with visor wipes, grinder boots, cowhide jeans and a leather jacket embossed with a bloody knife embedded in the occupant’s back. The occupant steers his machine along the esplanade before circling a traffic island housing the public urinals, all the while constantly scanning the empty street.
A municipal shelter with a notice board advertising local events for wet winter nights stands beside the amusement arcade. It’s here the bike comes to rest. The rider leaves the engine running as he nervously pulls posters from a saddle bag.
He works fast, skilfully.
Soon the forthcoming amateur operatic production of Annie Get Your Gun is no longer forthcoming. But The Personal Improvement Institute: A Course in Leadership Dynamics is. The etched face of some wild-eyed mountaineer intending to give a slide lecture the very next evening is replaced by the well-fed features of Dr Hermann P Temple who will show you the QUICK way to the TOP! during his impending weekend course on SUCCESS-POWER GETTING!
A similar fate is accorded Pinkie and Barrie, the Comedy Duo; Diana Barnham playing Bach on the Clavichord; and the providers of Merrie England Banquets. Book now to avoid disappointment. All disappear within seconds to be replaced by five identical images of Dr Temple. A quintet of pointing forefingers, quiffs and eyes that would make a cobra back off.
A solitary light snaps on.
It’s on the third floor of an office block five minutes from the esplanade. The bare bulb backlights the gold lettering on the window: Mark Miles Intercontinental. Below that: Creative Publicity and Personal Management. On the bottom line: MAKE your MARK with MILES. He’s WAY ahead.
The block housing Mark Miles’ office is just that: a block. It has all the charm of a coal bunker. Built in the sixties, it’s an early example of how easily even smart people can be conned. Concrete is beautiful. Or so the architects decreed at the time.
Providence House, for that’s the block’s portentous name, takes on a gloomy appearance in the torrential rain. Mark Miles appears at the window, taking off his helmet, while simultaneously dropping the slatted blind. One side falls faster than the other, which doesn’t happen in movies, but almost always does in real life. Cursing, he tries to level it off, one-handed. Instead it becomes uncoupled and collapses on top of him. Mark Miles and his blind have one quality in common. Both spend their lives dangling.
Mark is sick of being a small fish in a small pond. His only remaining heroes are the sharks in the local aquarium. These massive glistening predators eye the awed visitors on the other side of the glass with contempt as they sweep majestically past in their eternal search for a way out. Like them, Mark wants to command respect. To this end his pinball mind has been hyperactive since being approached by Dr Temple‘s people to promote his weekend course. Leadership dynamics might just be the metamorphosis needed to take him to the top.
He switches on a battered desk lamp, puts it on the floor and kills the overhead. Mark has to be careful. The landlord suspects that, contrary to the terms of his lease, the office also doubles as his living quarters.
The landlord is right.
That’s why the chipped commode with Hospital Property boldly stencilled on its lid, and smuggled in under cover of darkness from his late grandma’s council flat, is disguised with a potted palm. He lifts the palm out and urinates into the china basin.
Slopping out has always been a complicated ritual. When he first moved into the building the landlord - Fred Snipe, thin as a drainpipe - was wont to ambush him on his early morning run along the corridor to the communal lavatory. After several narrow escapes Mark devised a strategy whereby he transferred the contents of the commode into a plastic First Aid Box before embarking upon this essential mission.
Now, on their occasional encounters, Snipe’s nose twitches like a gerbil’s at the odour. His mouth opens but words refuse to emerge. He just can’t bring himself to ask what the container contains. Mark relishes these precious moments, smiling and patting the Red Cross on the box: ‘Preparation H, Fred. Works wonders.’ He sometimes varies the exchange: ‘Glycerine suppositories, Fred. Never fails to get you moving.’ Or, if he really wants to make the landlord blush, he adds: ‘Clinically proven to be effective against irritation and itching piles.’
These words almost always play on Snipe’s retreating figure.
Mark now eases out a crumpled futon and sleeping bag from under the defeated sofa, carefully avoiding any tangling with its bare springs. Rolling back and forth on the floor he sheds his clothes and slips into the kapok envelope.
In the street below Mark’s office, a black umbrella is opened from the shelter of a shop door. A man, short and paunchy, steps out, his suet- pudding face glistening in the rain. His name is William Snazell and he’s a private detective, a gumshoe. Dressed in a faded raincoat and shapeless trilby, he takes a final look at the darkened window before crossing the road. His shiny rubber galoshes shuffle through the sheet of rainwater.
Early that same night the last train had arrived on time. At exactly 21.36. The two carriages, all that remained of the express from London, are shunted backwards to the deserted platform.
Ayling-on-Sea is at the end of the line.
Water gushes through a hole in the station roof. A solitary passenger alights, slamming the door shut. He notes the rain splattering the platform, puts down his tattered suitcase, and slips a finger into the galosh that’s become dislodged. Opening a black umbrella, he proceeds to the unmanned ticket barrier.
Outside, a sign indicates a vacant taxi rank. The passenger moves to the courtesy phone housed under a plastic hood and picks up the receiver.
The line is dead.
Cussing, he starts his walk into town.
The Journey’s End boarding house is at the unfashionable end of the esplanade. A Vacancies placard dangles seductively between the frilly curtains of the front room. The passenger lowers his umbrella to study a scrap of paper before pressing the bell. The red and yellow sunrise pattern of the glass front door is abruptly illuminated as a figure comes to open it.
The passenger steps back to fully appreciate the woman standing before him: ‘Mrs Westby?’
‘En suite for one night?’
‘Correct,’ he looks her over. Enough curves to drive a man crazy. ‘Although the view’s so good I may stay longer.’
Snazell eases himself past Mrs Westby’s buffer breasts into the small hallway, his eyes fixed on her white silk blouse and the black ruche brassiere peeping out from behind a wayward button. Lewdness is an essential ingredient in Sandra Westby’s life. She enjoys being an object of male desire. Her glistening blood red lips shape themselves around each word before finally setting it free.
‘You’re my only guest tonight.’
‘Choose a room between 1 and 15.’
‘Don’t be saucy now. I’ll put you in 13.’
‘13: that’s my lucky number.’
‘I’ll put you in 7 then.’
She plucks a key off a board behind the small counter and starts up the stairs. Snazell follows, his attention alternating between her arse rotating inside a tight silk skirt and the immaculately straight seams of her black stockings. Reaching the second landing she opens up Room 7 and switches on the light. Snazell steps inside the small room. He immediately pumps the mattress, appreciatively.
‘Very nice. Nice and hard. The way I like it.’ He sits on it and bounces a couple of times. ‘Bet this bed could tell a few stories.’
‘Only cries and groans,’ replies Mrs Westby.
‘Of eternal love?’
‘I wouldn’t go that far, Mr Snazell.’
‘That’s more like it.’
She sighs as she shuts the door then opens it again.
‘The bar will be open for aperitifs in half-an hour.’
Left alone Snazell snaps open his suitcase. Lifting out several pairs of thermal underwear and woollen pyjamas, he reveals the tools of his trade: binoculars, bugging equipment, and a Smith & Wesson .32 automatic with silencer.