Sleet slapped against the windscreen, the wiper-blades squealed. Warm stale air was gusting in through the van’s vents.
‘I’ve never known anything like it,’ Frank said. He drew hard on his cigarette, a column of ash falling. ‘We had them with that rhumba.’
From the passenger seat, Ted quietly watched the curtain-drawn houses slide by.
Frank carelessly brushed at his lap. ‘I mean, asking us to call the bingo numbers in the middle of a set.’ He laughed, shook his head.
‘I thought you did it quite professionally,’ Ted said, smiling. He gazed at the road ahead, the streetlights reflecting dully from the slicked tarmac.
‘Furore’ they were called; an organ duo. They’d started out playing lounges, functions, tea dances, but the work had dried up. Now they were playing working men’s clubs; it had been Swindon tonight.
Another run of sleeping houses slipped past. Frank steered the corner where the pebble-dashed police station loitered, then wound down the window. He sucked a last drag on his cigarette, pushed the butt out through the gap and cranked up the window. ‘Frightening thing is, they said they’d have us back anytime.’
Ted cleared his throat. ‘About that, Frank…’
Frank swung the van round a bend, accelerated.
I’ve been meaning to, er…’ Ted ran his tongue across his lips, inhaled sharply. ‘Look, Frank, I can’t keep doing this.’
‘How d’you mean?’ Frank glanced across.
‘Well…’ Ted gripped his knees. ‘I’ve been offered a job on a cruise ship.’
A cruise ship?’ Frank fumbled in his jacket pocket, pulled out a cigarette packet, flipped it open against his chin. ‘Doing what?’
Ted stared straight ahead. ‘I went for an audition. Pianist and organist.’
Frank drew out a cigarette with his teeth, dropped the packet back into his pocket. He looked across at Ted, then faced forward. ‘What about the bookings, Ted?’ he asked, the cigarette waggling. ‘You’re letting people down.’
‘Don’t be like that, Frank.’
Ted pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘Look at it. Gill’s pregnant. You can’t start clearing off on the cruise ships for six months, can you?’
‘That’s not the point though, is it?’ Frank shook his head then braked hard and swerved onto a side street. ‘How long have you known?’
‘I’ve got to think about my career…’
‘What career?’ Frank laughed sourly. The van slowed; its tyre scuffed the kerb outside Ted’s flat, the ground floor of a red brick terrace. He cut the engine; the heater fell silent. ‘I should have known you’d do something like this.’
Ted turned down the corners of his mouth, shrugged.
Leaning back against the door, Frank thumbed the lighter. The flame threw a wavering glow over his stubbled face. He sucked at the filter tip, the tobacco crisply crackling. The exhaled smoke roiled against the windscreen. ‘You should’ve told me, Ted.’
Drips from the skeletal tree branches overhead drummed on the roof; the engine ticked as it cooled. Frank dragged on his cigarette.
‘I’ll get my stuff out,’ Ted said quietly. He wrenched the handle, let the door fall open with the road’s camber then stepped down from the van.
He walked round, opened the rear door and dragged his amplifier towards him. After depositing it in his hallway, he hurried back to the van. Shivering, dipping his head into the slanting sleet, he lifted out his keyboard, then, balancing it on his thigh, he slammed the door shut. As he scuttered along the path to his flat, he heard the engine start, rev hard. He turned and watched Frank drive away, the tail lights receding.
Once Ted had checked into the hotel, he decided to take a walk. It had been a long drive from Lincolnshire.
He stopped outside the Boots store, looking back along the high street. The gusting wind lifted his tie. All the old shops had gone, Woolworths and the rest. Now there were coffee shops, pound shops, charity shops. It had changed, deteriorated. Drawing a deep breath he noticed the absence of the sour tang which used to drift across town from the brewery. It had closed a couple of years ago; he’d read that somewhere.
He crossed the road, made his way down Lower Turk Street, a narrow one-way abbreviated by a mini-roundabout. At the junction, he slowed, surveying the supermarket opposite. It was new to his knowledge, but it already looked worn. He checked his watch. 4.45. He needed to get back to the hotel and eat before the evening’s show. He quickened his pace then, abruptly, halted.
There was a blockish concrete building set back from the pavement. The sign over the door announced ‘Watson’s Carpets’ in tall, blue lettering. Could that be the Watson he used to know? Frank Watson? Could he really still be in town after all these years?
The door groaned closed behind him. There were indistinct voices emanating from somewhere down at the far end of the showroom. He meandered along an aisle, studying the wool twist and easy-clean displays, roll on roll, rack after rack. At the end of the aisle, he stalled. There were two men standing at the counter. The man on the business side was prodding a calculator.
‘It should be eight-two-five,’ the man looked up at the customer, ‘but we can do it for seven-fifty.’
Ted’s stomach flipped. It was; it was Frank. The black hair of Frank’s youth had been shaded grey grey; his jowls hung slack; his shoulders were slightly more sloped, but it was definitely Frank. Suddenly, Ted could feel the sweat starting in his hair. Why had he come in? What would he say? He began to pat his pockets, first his jacket, then his trousers. He took a step backwards, and another, then tapped his forehead and tutted, as though remembering that he’d left something crucial in the car. Turning, he walked quickly along the aisle, then out through the door.
He looked back at the shop from the pavement. Watson’s Carpets. He tugged the lapels of his jacket, then, with a forward jut of his chin, straightened his tie.
Ted sat at a table by the window, waiting for his meal to arrive. There were three or four middle-aged couples dotted around the dining room of the old Georgian coaching house. A group of suited business-types bantered by the bar, one of them yelping at a slot machine.
Ted watched the after-work people, the college kids pass outside. He reached for his glass of iced water, sipped. Strange, he thought, how the place had changed, but it was still the same sleepy backwater he’d once known. And yet, somehow, it felt like he’d never lived here; like those times had never happened.
A passing bus blocked the light for a moment, caused the water in his glass to ripple. Odd seeing Frank again…
There was movement at the table beside him.
‘You sit on that side, Gordon,’ a woman said.
Chairs were being dragged out. It was a couple, retirement age. The man caught Ted’s eye.
‘Howdo?’ he said with a wink and a twitch of his head.
Northerners, Ted decided. He smiled pleasantly, the fine creases crinkling beside his eyes.
‘Lovely little place this, isn’t it?’ the woman said, smoothing out the skirt under her legs before she sat.
‘You staying here as well?’ the man asked, unfastening his jacket, tilting his head towards the bar.
‘Just the night. Passing through.’
The man nodded. ‘Here for our son’s wedding.’ He leaned back, his paunch straining his shirt buttons. ‘Thought we’d make a little holiday of it.’
‘That sounds nice.’ Ted had learned, over the years, to give the right responses. People seemed to talk to him, to tell him their stories.
‘You from round here?’ the man asked.
Ted smiled. ‘I used to be. Just back on business.’
‘Gordon used to travel all the time for work, didn’t you, Gordon?’
‘Spent my life in airports,’ Gordon said, tucking the loosened shirt flap back into his trousers.
‘Missed the children growing up, didn’t you?’ the woman said, matter-of-factly.
‘Well, someone had to pay the school fees,’ he replied drily.
Ted’s gaze strayed out of the window. No, he wasn’t missing anything, being single, being free.
‘Stuart’s an accountant up in London,’ the woman stated.
Ted looked at her, inquiringly.
‘Our son,’ the man said, cocking his head towards his wife, rolling his eyes apologetically.
She scowled at Gordon.
A double act, Ted decided.
‘Done very nicely for himself,’ she continued.
‘Very nicely,’ Gordon confirmed.
‘Hunter’s Chicken?’ Ted hadn’t heard the waiter approach. He glanced up, thankful of the intrusion.
‘That’s me,’ he said, sliding his glass towards the centre of the table, swaying to a side.
‘Would you like any sauces with that, sir?’
‘No, I’m fine, thanks.’ Ted smiled up at the young waiter. ‘Thank you. This looks great.’
‘So polite down here, aren’t they?’ the woman commented as the waiter retreated.
Ted nodded, took hold of his knife and fork.
‘And his wife-to-be’s lovely,’ said the woman, dipping back into her previous stream. ‘You should see where they’re having the wedding…’
The fluorescent bulb over the sink flickered on. Ted looked into the mirror, lifted his chin, twisted his bowtie straight. Leaning towards the glass, he examined his moustache, noticed a few stray bristles. Reaching down, he unzipped the toiletries bag behind the taps and delved until he felt the cool steel of his scissors. With deft, bonsai-precision, he snipped away the offending filaments, then, tilting back his head, he clipped away a rogue nasal hair.
He dropped the scissors back into the bag, then touched a hand to the flashes of grey at his temple, ran a hand through his sandy hair. Life had been kind, he knew. A decade on the cruise ships; then working in America for Roland Keyboards in Development and Design and later touring Europe as Marketing Specialist/Artist. He’d returned to England three years ago, to take it easy, to do what he loved, to play to audiences again. He couldn’t have envisaged any of that when he left town all those years ago.
The sun had long dipped below the roofs of the buildings across the street. The darkness in his room had thickened. He walked across, pressed the light-switch, then unzipped the suit-bag hanging from the hook on the door.
With one arm in the sleeve of his white dinner jacket, he paused, surveying the open bag on the bed, the small kettle on the table, the ramekin of sachets beside it. He’d never known what he wanted when he was younger. But he couldn’t have settled; would never have been happy just staying in the same place, selling carpets. He pushed his other arm into the sleeve. No, he’d been right to leave; he’d made the right choices. He stooped, pulled on his shoes, then, sitting on the edge of the bed, bent to fasten his laces.
The Alton Organ and Keyboard Club met once a month at the Grange Hotel, a low-slung building on the fringe of town. Ted had already set up his equipment on the stage at the far end of the conference room.
He was sitting behind his two-tiered keyboard. The PA speakers hissed slightly. Without looking down he pressed the button. The rhythm began, a swinging Bossa Nova. That was the thing about these gigs, Ted reflected, the people were always so appreciative. They were easy audiences.
Ted glanced out at the empty tables which extended up the room. He flicked his hands forward so his sleeves retreated above his wrist, then lowered his fingers to the keyboard and began a Latin flavoured rendition of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale.’ His movements were expert, minimal, his head pecked time, his feet skipped, toe and heeling across the bass pedals. Absorbed in the moment, he allowed the music to flow.
After two verses he lifted his hands from the keyboard, reached forward and stopped the beat. The PA’s hiss filled the silence.
‘How was that, Alan?’ he called.
Alan Pilgrim, Chairman of the Alton Organ and Keyboard Club advanced from the rear of the room. ‘Sounded great,’ he said, approaching the stage. He was a spry, well-tanned man, white-haired, dapper. He was smiling broadly, rubbing his hands together.
‘Not too loud?’ Ted pulled his sleeves down.
‘No, perfect. Superb accordion setting that. And the rhythms…’
Ted stood. ‘Fantastic bit of kit, this, the Roland Atelier AP-900.’
‘It certainly is,’ Alan agreed, nodding.
Ted walked to the front of the stage. ‘A bargain for what they can do.’
A handful of people were ambling up the room, chatting, laughing.
‘Oh, I meant to ask,’ Alan said. ‘Do you need a microphone stand?’
For an instant, Ted’s eyes became glassy, unseeing. He’d been working on the cruise ships. It must have been a Valentine’s Day. They were rolling in heavy seas. Someone had requested ‘Je t’aime.’ That was the last time he’d tried his falsetto in public; the last time he’d sung in anger. A smile creased Ted’s face; there had been some memorable moments on the cruise ships. He looked back at Alan, then stepped down onto the parqueted dance floor. ‘No, I’ll be fine. I’ll just talk into the hand-held, and leave it on top of the Atelier when I’m playing.’
‘Great,’ Alan said. The first arrivals were taking their seats. He touched Ted’s elbow. ‘I’m going to have to talk to a few people.’
Ted moved across the front of the stage, to the shadowy corner by the fire door, watching as more people filtered in. It was going to be a good turnout; fifty or sixty Alan had predicted earlier. The room was filling. He smoothed his moustache as he felt the familiar twist in his gut. He loved this waiting period, the nervous excitement. It had never lost its thrill.
After a while, Alan mounted the steps at the side of the stage. He picked the microphone from the top of Ted’s keyboard.
‘Hello everybody. Nice to see you all again. And welcome to a couple of new faces. We’ll be following the usual format tonight. First off, the stage is open to anyone who wants to get up and play, to show us what they’ve been working on. You can use the Club’s organ.’ He paused, as though retracing rehearsed lines. ‘Personally, I’m very excited about Alice’s new disco styling of “You Really Got Me.” That should set things off with a swing.’ There were murmurings among the crowd. Someone chortled, at a private joke. ‘And then our guest performer…where are you, Ted?’
Ted stepped forward, held up a hand, mouthed ‘Hello everyone.’
‘Ted’ll give us a set and then talk to us about his career in music, on the high seas and working for Roland in America, in,’ Alan hesitated, ‘design and development and touring Europe. Is that right, Ted?’
Ted smiled professionally, nodded. He stepped back into the shadows, adjusted his tie.
Ted checked out of the hotel ten minutes before the eleven o’clock deadline. Once he’d dumped his bags on the back seat of his Mercedes, he drove the short distance to the car- park in front of Watson’s Carpets.
He stood beside his car, the wind snapping at his slacks, and thumbed the button on his key-fob. The sidelights blinked, the central locking clunked. There was nervousness flitting in his stomach, like before a show.
Inside the shop, he threaded along an aisle, browsing the Berber, Axminster and Wilton possibilities. The smell of carpets, new and untrodden, filled his nostrils, made him want to sneeze.
Frank was at the counter again, alone, his head bowed, punching something into the computer with heavy prods of his index fingers.
Ted’s throat tightened; he felt slightly sick. He wasn’t sure he could do this. He spun round, spied a fat book of carpet swatches propped on a melamined pedestal. He moved across to it, keeping his back to Frank, and flipped the heavy pages. Should he just go? Maybe that would be best. He ran his fingers through a deep velvet plush, watching the darker track marks left behind. Must be a swine to vacuum.
‘Are you OK there?’ the voice at his shoulder enquired.
Ted’s stomach dropped; he swallowed hard, turned. He saw the recognition kindle in Frank’s eyes. Ted scanned Frank’s face, the creases round his eyes, beside his nose, were deeply scored, his stubble ineradicably dense.
Ted cleared his throat. ‘Hello, Frank.’
‘I thought it was you.’
‘How are you?’ Ted ran a finger under his collar.
Frank folded his arms. He was wearing a Golf Club V-neck under his jacket. ‘Oh, surviving.’
Ted’s gaze wandered as he searched for something to say.
‘And you?’ Frank asked.
Ted raised his shoulders. ‘Oh, not too bad, thanks. Getting by.’
‘So what brings you to these parts?’
‘Oh, just a thing with the Keyboard Club.’
Frank rocked back his head, snorted a laugh. ‘You’re not still doing that, are you?’
Ted smiled. Frank was still the same.
‘Well,’ Ted said brightly, ‘you’ve certainly got a lot of carpets.’
‘Everything you could want. And if we don’t have it, we can get it.’
Ted grinned at the patter. The telephone was ringing.
‘Alright, then, nice to see you, Ted.’ Frank was backing away, holding up a hand in farewell. ‘Bye,’ he said, then jogged towards the counter, lifted the handset to his ear.
Ted revisited the book of swatches, flipped the pages.
‘Hello, Watson’s Carpets,’ he heard Frank say. ‘Oh, hello again, Mrs Bennett…What size is the room?…We could send someone round to measure up for you…How’s ten o’clock tomorrow?…In the morning…Alright, I’ll put that in the book then…Ten A.M…Alright, yep. Bye, Mrs Bennett.’
Ted closed the swatch book and advanced towards the counter. Frank was writing something in a large diary. Then, he dragged the mouse, double-clicked and began poking the keyboard.
Ted stood quietly, contemplating a display of carpet tiles.
After a while, Frank stopped typing, looked up. ‘What did you actually want, Ted?’
Ted smiled back at him, surprised. ‘I just thought I could buy you a coffee, catch up. You know?’
Frank’s thick eyebrows arched. ‘I can’t just shut the shop. Steve’s out measuring up and Gill’s got the grandkids.’
‘Well, I just wanted to say hello, really. See how you’re doing. It’s been a long time, Frank.’ Frank was staring at him. ‘And I don’t know if I’ll be passing through again.’ Ted pressed his lips together, shrugged poignantly.
Frank’s shoulders sagged. ‘Right,’ he said, releasing a long, low sigh. He dragged an invoice towards him, peered at the computer screen and began to type.
‘So…’ Ted began, ‘it’s changed a bit round here, hasn’t it?’
‘Well, they keep building more houses.’ Frank didn’t raise his head.
Ted noticed the light dusting of dandruff on Frank’s collar. ‘It’s the same everywhere,’ he concurred.
‘Worked out well for us, business-wise.’ Frank continued to type.
Ted rocked up onto his toes, sank again. ‘So how’s the family? How’s Gill?’ He knew Gill had never really liked him.
Frank‘s face softened. ‘Oh, she’s alright,’ he said. ‘Snowed under with the grandkids, but she loves it.’
‘Grandkids,’ Ted said warmly. ‘How many?’
Frank stood upright. ‘Two, at the moment. Paul’s. I don’t think he’d been born when you left.’ There was a glow to Frank now. ‘And Laura’s expecting.’
‘That’s wonderful, Frank. They’re spawning.’
Frank laughed slightly as he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and extracted a battered brown leather wallet. He pulled out a photograph and passed it across to Ted.
‘That’s them. Sam and Charlotte, Charlie.’
They looked happy, full of mischief. ‘You must be so proud, Frank,’ Ted said, returning the photograph.
Frank smiled as he eased the picture back into his wallet, then dropped the wallet into his pocket.
‘So, what about you?’ Frank asked. ‘Ever marry?’
Ted laughed slightly. ‘No. Never met the right person.’
‘Still a bachelor, eh?’
Ted lowered his eyes.
‘So where did you get to? Did you ever find what you were looking for?’
‘I saw the world on the cruise ships.’
‘I heard you were in America.’
The old small town grapevine. Everyone knew everybody’s business. ‘Yeah, Philadelphia. Design and Development for Roland.’
‘Who’s he?’ Frank asked quickly, deadpan.
Ted laughed, shook his head. ‘The keyboard company.’
‘And now?’ Frank bowed his head again, reached for an invoice, then resumed his typing.
‘Oh, I just play to enjoy it. The odd club, tea dance, society, all sorts, really. What about you? You still play?’
‘No.’ Frank elongated the word. ‘That all went when the kids came along. Gill’s dad offered me a partnership in this.’
A silence settled. Frank tapped something into the computer.
Ted watched him for a while. ‘You know, I’m sorry about the way I quit the band. The way I just left.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ Frank said, glancing up, reaching for another invoice.
‘But you did leave me standing there holding my organ.’ Ted laughed, but Frank had started typing again.
‘Shit,’ Frank said and poked the delete button. He looked up at Ted. ‘It was a long time ago, Ted. Another life. We’ve both moved on.’
‘They were good days, though, weren’t they? Furore.’
Frank smiled sadly. ‘They’re long gone, Ted. We’re different people now.’ Frank’s gaze lingered on Ted for an instant, then he looked down and riffled through the stack of invoices. ‘Sorry, Ted,’ he said, ‘but I’ve really got to get on…’
‘Right,’ Ted said quietly, the word hardly audible. For a few seconds he studied the top of Frank’s head, the milky scalp under the steeled hair. ‘Right,’ he repeated, ‘Well, I’d better be making off. It was good to see you, Frank.’
Frank didn’t look up. ‘Yeah, bye Ted. Nice to see you,’ he murmured absently.
Ted walked slowly back along the aisle and out of the shop. As he crossed the car-park, he pressed the button on his key-fob. The lights on his car flashed. Hinging open the door, he glanced back at the building. He could feel a heaviness weighing on him, a sadness swelling inside. He sniffed then rubbed the side of his nose with a finger. The cool wind blew across him. He stared back at Frank’s shop briefly, then he climbed into his car, swung the door shut and switched on the sat nav. After a moment he programmed a new route. He was heading north, for one night in Nuneaton. They were always a good crowd in Nuneaton. And then it would be back home to the bungalow in Clacton for two days before he was on the road again.
Briefly, Ted hung his head, then reached forward and twisted the key in the ignition.
Jonathan Crane lives in Wivenhoe, England. He teaches creative writing at the University of Essex, and has just finished a story cycle which he’ll be seeking to publish while he writes his first novel. He used to be a musician/composer.
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You can read more of Jonathan’s writing below:
‘A Planted Flag’ – in Belle Ombre
‘We Met Up for Coffee’ – in Open Journal of Arts and Letters
‘Samaritans’ – in Literally Stories
This is the tale of a town on the fringes of fear, of ordinary people and everyday objects transformed by terror and madness, a microcosm of the world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. This is a world where the unreal is real, where the familiar and friendly lure and deceive. On the outskirts of civilisation sits this solitary town. Home to the unhinged. Oblivion to outsiders.
Shallow Creek contains twenty-one original horror stories by a chilling cast of contemporary writers, including stories by Sarah Lotz, Richard Thomas, Adrian J Walker, and Aliya Whitely. Told through a series of interconnected narratives, Shallow Creek is an epic anthology that exposes the raw human emotion and heart-pounding thrills at the the genre’s core.
Shallow Creek Paperback
Set of Horror Bookmarks
SHALLOW CREEK EBOOK
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