C is for Cromer by Martin David Edwards
The rain whipped against Georges jacket as he stepped out of his car. He shivered and felt the droplets of water run down his face, stinging with salt. Cromer. George inspected the houses bordering the Norfolk seashore, their green and orange paintwork dulled by the rain. In the grand tour of England by alphabet, he charted his weekend journeys with precision. The voyage across the country was exotic and arduous, requiring the utmost dedication and willingness to learn. In Ashford, standing at a bar alone over an evening, he had realised the need to be more proactive. Then he padded his stomach and remembered the ticking-off from Brighton that he ought to go to the gym.
Now his third town was waiting. Life was excellent, George declared to himself.
He huddled forward to the pier. Elderly men wearing identical blue blazers were standing at its entrance, black instrument cases nestling at their feet.
The local competition. George smiled. Cromer was going to be a breeze like its weather.
Stepping through the instrument cases, he inspected the rain-swept boardwalk of the pier snaking out to the sea. At its end, he could see the darkened front of the theatre and the squat building of a lifeboat station. Skidding forwards, he gripped a handrail to right himself then tucked his hand into his pocket to rub against his loose change. No point worrying too much about falling in.
A rattle of coins made him turn around and squint in the rain. Walking towards him a figure shook a collection tin, wearing a hooded cagoule in the same blue as the blazers of the old men.
I already give to charity, George said to the figure, crossing his arms.
The cagoule kept advancing on the boardwalk, the tin held out like a talisman.
Too wet for collecting outside. Try the arcades, he continued, calculating a zig zag to the opposite side of the pier.
The figure reached up to pull down its hood. A crop of mousy brown hair fell onto the shoulders of the cagoule, before it was scooped up with the tin held for cover. Through a screen of raindrops, George saw the red blur of lipstick on the figures face.
When I say I give to charity, Im merely pointing out a precedent, he said, remembering Ashford.
A shake of the tin announced the reply. George examined the figure, thankful he did not need glasses. Freckles too. His dream girl.
I admire your dedication, he said, sliding closer.
The girl shrugged and gave the tin a louder, single shake.
We should discuss your cause. Im curious, he continued.
Looking out to the sea, she let the tin drop to her side. George saw her lips move silently and wondered if she was preparing her reply.
Cromer Bird Sanctuary, she said in a small voice.
Straining with his ear cupped against the wind, George asked her to repeat herself.
Like the band. One pound, she replied louder, tapping the collecting tin.
George reached into his pockets, being careful not to jangle his change. I seem to be out of luck, he replied, removing his hands and showing his empty palms.
She let the tin drop again as her eyes wondered to the sky.
Absent mindedness, he said, clicking his forehead. From his back pocket, he pulled out a crumpled twenty pound note and straightened it between his fingers.
The girl prodded the tin at him, but he kept the banknote in his hand.
A name would be outstanding, he said.
The Sanctuary, she replied, her freckles staring at him.
Not the charity. Yours, he said, holding in his stomach.
The freckles assessed him then lowered to the boardwalk.
I was hoping to make a commendation. For valour, he continued.
No point. Its just my shift.
But its raining.
It always rains in Cromer.
You could have called in sick.
The girl shrugged and gazed at the sea.
I could make a monthly donation. Charities like the predictability.
The freckles looked at him straight on. Her eyes, George saw for the first time, were as grey as the sea. He made a note to be more observant in the future.
Nicola, the girl said. Then the eyes returned to the sea, the pupils drowning in the waves.
Keeping his breath held in, George decided he would like to protect her. I bet you have a Direct Debit form, he said.
The eyes blinked as if she had woken from a trance. He hoped that she would not refer him to a download from the Internet.
Nicola unzipped her cagoule and removed an envelope from an inner pocket. With a swift stretch of her sleeve, the form appeared in his hand. There was not even an opportunity for their fingers to touch.
The form will get wet, he said, holding the envelope in the rain.
She shrugged and let the tin dangle to her side.
We could meet later. I could fill the form in at my hotel, he said.
Nicolas eyes returned to the sea. Already she was lost to him, he thought.
I need to check my bank details on my laptop, he added.
Her mousy hair turned back in his direction, the wind whipping hair in her face.
Four oclock. If youre free for five minutes, he said.
The girl paused before replying, her grey eyes searching his own. He could feel himself blushing.
Six. By the church in the square. You cant miss it, she said, breaking her gaze.
If we are getting married, I should bring you flowers, he joked.
There are no flowers in Cromer, she replied. And no alternatives to meeting him either, her lowered eyes said.
As Nicola zipped up her cagoule and left the pier, George watched her back shrink to a dot of blue. Dancing a jig along the boardwalk, he crossed the men waiting with their instrument cases and gave them a bow. He had got his girl.
At his hotel, George examined the clothes he had hung in the wardrobe and selected a rainbow-patterned shirt. He would be a burst of colour to join his lady in blue. Then he opened his briefcase and pulled out a candle and a roll of tape. From the bathroom, he returned with a plastic beaker to hold the candle. Standing on a chair, he reached up to the fire alarm and taped over its sensor. Another lesson to learn, this time in advance.
George looked at his watch. He was an hour early.
Walking along the seafront, felt his skin warm from the sun. A screech from the sky interrupted him as a seagull swopped towards him in a blur of white feathers.
He cleared his throat and looked over his shoulder to check he was not being watched.
Id love to be tickled by your freckles, he said.
The seagull shrieked at him and flew away in an arc. Selecting another, he practised small talk, asking polite questions about the charity. When he was reminded of Nicolas eyes by a grey pigeon, he added compliments about her charm and her generosity. But he did not ask the birds any questions about boyfriends, fearing what the answer might be.
At ten past six outside church, the blue cagoule entered the town square. He forgave her; being late was fashionable for girls. As Nicola crossed the paving stones, he saw the black rectangle of a mobile phone held up to her ear. She was talking intently into the mouthpiece, her hair bobbing up and down as she spoke.
When Nicola drew closer to the church, she slipped the phone into her pocket and stood hunched below the tower waiting for him.
George breathed in and beamed a smile wide enough for both of them. In his mind he visualised the two orbs of an hour glass with sand running between them. Five minutes and counting.
The grey eyes examined his rainbow shirt.
We could go for a walk, he said, checking his shirt buttons.
Nicola shrugged and fell into step behind him. No perfume, he noticed with a discrete sniff. Never mind, he concluded; her plainness was delicious.
As they entered a side street, George steered them away from the beach. He did not want to compete with the sea for her attention. Turning, she followed him without a word.
I adore Cromer, he declared. Four minutes to go.
Why are you here?
Im on a journey, he said, startled by the directness of the question. Accelerating his pace, he hoped she would not ask him to elaborate.
Nicola said nothing and closed her eyes. Instead of the sea, she was soaking up the sun.
Working for a charity is fantastic. You must be adorably caring, he said, the sand in his hour glass slowing to a trickle.
The hour glass emptied to a single remaining grain.
They continued walking side-by-side, the only sound the swishing of her cagoule. At the entrance to an alleyway, the swishing stopped. Nicola had paused outside a courtyard filled with aluminium tables, rain steaming from their tops in the sunshine.
George closed his lips and ran his tongue against his teeth in preparation for a kiss. At the hotel, he should have used mouthwash. Another lesson to be learned.
But Nicola had entered a pub next door to the courtyard. As the door closed, he was greeted with a gust of stale beer and the sound of a television. Inside, a screen bolted to the wall showed football players in green and yellow shaking the hands of a referee, watched by holidaymakers in shorts with pint glasses in their hands. On a poster tacked to the wallpaper, George recognised the men in blue blazers and read an advert for a concert in the evening at the piers theatre.
Without waiting for him, Nicola sat down at an empty table at the opposite end of the room to the screen. George aimed straight for the bar.
One for yourself. Im heading for the Promised Land, he said to the barman, giving him a two pound coin as a tip.
At Nicolas table, he held in his stomach and presented two extra-large wine glasses. Her freckles tracked the glasses from stem to tip.
Red or white. I didnt you know which you preferred, he said, sliding the glasses towards her.
Taking a sip from each glass, she nodded and wrapped her cagoule sleeve around their stems. With a creak, George sat down empty-handed with his back to the screen. He did not want to risk a reminder from a clock ticking down in its corner.
Nicolas eyes darted to his chair. As he saw the flash of grey, he kept his stomach tightened. Definitely, he was falling in love.
You dont have to keep holding in your breath. I cant be impressed, she said.
But you deserve to be impressed, George replied, keeping his stomach tight.
I dont deserve anything, she said, holding up her hand for attention.
Youre beautiful, he blurted.
Youve been sneaking shots at the bar.
The barman appeared at their table with an ice cube in a glass. Emptying the cube into her white wine, Nicola watched the ice cube float to its bottom.
You can have anything you want, George said, taking the spare glass of red wine.
When I was seventeen, I had a dream, she said.
He ummed an encouragement, his head tilted to one side. She must be twenty by now, he estimated.
I wanted to be a musician. With my birthday money, I bought a guitar.
A frown, then another sip of her drink.
Dreams are everything, George said, correcting himself in a rush.
I gave up.
Nicolas fingers delved into her glass to stir the ice cube.
You cant deny your dreams, he relied, watching her fingernail magnified against the side of the glass.
The lessons were too hard. I never played anything right.
Life is for learning from mistakes.
Nicola withdrew her finger from the glass and licked its tip.
I can inspire you to learn again, George said, leaning forward in his chair and reaching for her hand.
She slid her fingers into her cagoule pockets and watched his hand retreat across the table.
We could go to the concert tonight, George continued, pointing to the poster tacked to the wallpaper. You might rekindle your enthusiasm. We could share the excitement together.
A hand rose from her pocket to wave a strand of hair away from her face. Then she stood up, leaving the unfinished wine on the table.
Ive upset you, he said, letting his stomach expand.
Lets go buy tickets, she replied, hurrying through the throng of holidaymakers.
Draining his glass, George realised they had not even discussed the Direct Debit form. As they left the pub, the holidaymakers began cheering the screen and he imagined that the praise was for him.
Inside the theatre on the pier, George brushed a seat and waited for Nicola sat to sit down.
If Im going to be learning, I could benefit from a programme, she said.
George bounded through the gangway to a steward holding a tray by the stage. Rifling through the contents, he selected a programme and two tubs of ice cream. Then to claps from the audience, the men in blue blazers walked onto the stage holding gleaming silver trumpets.
His moment had come.
Balancing the tubs of ice cream on top of each other, George searched for his seat. But when he saw the bob of Nicolas hair appear between the applauding hands, he paused in the middle of the gangway. Her freckles were lit in a pale blue glow from her phone. As she read a message on the screen, they dissolved into a laugh.
George handed the ice cream tubs to two pensioners sitting in the seats nearest to him. When they offered him money in return, he waved them away. As the band on the stage started to play, he left the theatre bent low to avoid being seen by Nicola.
Life was for learning and never giving up, he repeated to himself outside. Doncaster would be ideal. Over the next weekend he could take the train and give his driving a rest. In Yorkshire, he was sure that he would find a town of adventurers like him.
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