It is an interesting title, My Secret Hove...

Originally, as a working title, it was The Café Stories. They take place in and around this café, and, of course in the minds of its customers. A place, with a fluid form. One morning, I was in the bath, listening to Sounds of the Sixties, and there came on Kathy Kirby’s version of “Secret Love”. It is raucous, even painful, but I can now almost forgive her, as in that very moment, there came to mind this variant on that device of altering the word love to Hove in song titles. And so my secret Hove is no secret anymore.

Naturally, people will ask how true all of this might be.

What is Truth? Even fantasy bears a resemblance to our world. That said, what is fascinating, all the time, about Hove is the amount that happens, what is said, and somehow more subtly than Brighton. Sometimes one hears, or hears of, a remark, an incident, and that might make an item in itself or, better perhaps, knit with other things, imagined or otherwise, and takes one goodness knows where.

Why stories rather than The Great Hove Novel?

I have written quite a lot of them, and have others in mind once I have finished one which has been evolving into something far longer than most, if yet short of a novella. In a way, such forms are notional. A story can contain a novel. But, in the here and now, the limits of a story also give one the space to experiment with form, tenses, points of view, and - crucially perhaps - a sequence.

What do you intend to do with these as a whole, whatever that might become?

Well, I shall add some here from time to time, and it is a work in progress. One of the advantages of this turbulent era is trying to catch it on the hoof.










 

 

 

 

 


I CAN IMAGINE

 


     “They don’t give you much time.”
     “It’s not that bad.”
    His opening remark had been no prediction of a atality in the offing. He had simply said something as they chanced upon each other at the bleeping traffic-lights, or pelican-crossing as perhaps it was called in recognition of the noise which emanated from the poles on either side of the road up at the Dials. He had now slowed to the pace of her leg, which moved with the gait of a toy soldier, hindered as it was by the plaster which clung upon it and was shielded from graffiti-hungry vandals by a sheath of grey plastic.
      And now, across the café, there issued from the espresso machine a triangle of steam as if it had just come to a halt after a long journey and given a sigh.
     “Here you are,” said the waitress when, after juggling and swivelling the handles of a filter, brought two cups to their table, from which she then wiped the thin sludge remained before she scooping from the tray a plate with a muffin upon it.
      “I shouldn’t,” said Mary, “not with me like this. A plaster isn’t like doing weights.”
      She leant forward, pulled at the crinkled paper and cracked the muffin into sections before using one of them to mop up the released butter and demolished its roof-like crust with her teeth, then pulled back with her a brief flash of tongue the android eye of a currant lest it drop earthwards.
      “And the stupid thing is”, she continued, “that I wasn’t even coming back but was going out, turned to go up the steps and twisted it somehow.”
      The rain renewed its patter against the window, blown there by the wind from the west which came along the main road and made a gesture of turning up this pedestrianised, cobble-laid stretch which ran northwards, away from the sea which lay to the other side of a tall terrace more stately at the upper levels than along the illuminated parade of shop names which filled those premises which opened upon the pavement.
    “Guess this is the time of year, if one’s going to do anything so stupid.” She licked a finger and buried it in the handle. “This is good.”
     She stretched out the ailing, healing leg, and rested it on the stool which matched their seats, art-deco in shape if not age.
     “And you can be sure that somebody will mention Rear Window.”
    “They have - and that is set in a hot summer. No story if they’d all been cooped up, windows shut. But from my place, it would all have to be told through the passing feet.”
They had parted at the Dials, by the launderette. Parted, so it seemed to him, even if their journey from the lights had been three minutes. Parted, there was an emphasis to the word, not that she had looked back to notice his eyes rest a while upon her rear, which would take more than one muffin to turn awry.
     It was the same pair of jeans, cut to the knees, which rested between them now.
     “You, you get to work all right?”
     “Across the hallway. I’m in graphic design - you know, layouts.”
     “Ah.”
     “I talk to the Mac.”
    “Apple dangle the next version in front of you all the time, the Carrot more like, and lash you with a cry of ‘upgrade’.”
    “And at the end of the lash is yet another sort of new socket. But, thank God for the flat screen, made all the difference in my place.”
    He did not mention that it had more than crossed his mind that he could shift things about a bit and get a valve amplifier; had he said so, there may have been no time for her to continue, as she did so: “trouble is, I’ve only a shower, it’s the very devil like this...”
      “I can well imagine.”
    He hadn’t meant it to sound like that, and perhaps it didn’t. At any rate, she continued, “somebody called it the Anne Frank room. Very poor taste. For some reason it stuck. You see, I’d had some shelves built across the door, you’d never know what was behind.”
      “Now you say it, I’m surprised more people don’t do it.”
She shook back her brown hair, drawing some of it behind an ear, and licked muffin residue from a finger.
      “Sure I’m not interrupting your reading?”
      “No, not at all.” He pointed to The Magic Mountain, a cotton marker sewn into its top edge, and fraying at the protruding end. “They’ve all waited quite a while as it is in that sanitorium.”
      “I wonder if anybody told him that the title sounded like something by Enid Blyton?”
      “Heh!”
     He might have added some more, but in that moment’s banter she looked around as the door opened: a man, with a hood over his head, his body padded out by the anorak about him.
      “Mike!”
      The anorak dripped as he came towards them, glasses misty.
      “I wasn’t expecting you so soon...”
     “Got here quicker than I expected. Those gas works have finished, but I’m double-parked, thought you couldn’t go far in this rain.”
      From the other side of the glass came the flashing of hazard-lamps while Mary drank back the coffee and, as she put down the cup, nudged back a fingertip to point out, “this is John.”
      “Hi.”
      “Hi,” nodded Mike. “Nice to see you.”
      “Okay.” Mary held out an arm, and, as John leant forward, Mike reached down to ease her from the chair, gain balance, press a hand upon the table and begin a shuffle to the doorway that made a three-legged race look like a pas de deux.
      From somewhere in him came the call, “give my regards to Miss Frank!”
      She looked back with a smile, “ssh! Don’t give the game away!”
    And, as they went through the door, he turned to pick up the Blyton - the Mann - and, on opening it, took the marker, laid it between two pages an optimistic distance ahead. Before reading some more of it, he kept the stout volume to his left as, breathing deeply, he hunched over, towards the plate and circled across it with his fingertips to relieve the surface of those flecks and crumbs which she had left behind.
      He brought them to his lips, and wiped his tongue across all that remained.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                CRACKERS

 

 

     “Fuckin' wanker!”
      The air of the sunny street was rent by the phrase which, although hissed in much the style of an enraged cat, was as distinct as could be expected from a man who, alone at a table outside a pub, had worked – or idled – his way through much of the wine bottle set at an angle in the bucket before him.
      “Who on earth is that?” asked my mother a few paces later. “It's hardly the stuff of genteel Hove, it is?”
      We glanced back, and received a further glower. Beneath a shock of undulating white hair, roughly combed, was a glowing head whose flesh had been pushed this way and that as if lately worked from within – puppet-like - by a set of fingers determined to hasten outward decay. In the process the eyes had become hooded, lips curled inwards and chin descending as the neck folded into contours.
      All of which was in some contrast to a discreetly striped jacket from whose chest pocket sprang a triangle of handkerchief chosen to blend with a bow-tie of medium heft.
      “That's Crackers,” I said as we went into the café.
      “It sounded as if he was speaking to you. Have you upset him?”
      “Who hasn't? I think he's shameless. A part of Hove past marooned in Hove present. Somebody introduced me to him in passing a few years ago, and I soon realised that he is one of those people who latch onto somebody 'new' as an opportunity to repeat the stories of which everybody else has grown tired. I took a swift dislike to him.”
      “Why was that? Weren't you being harsh?”
      We sat down.
     “No, definitely not. Before long he had launched into a saga, the upshot which is that, some decades ago, he'd been what is known here as a 'knocker-boy' – they go from door to door, finding out who might have some choice items and be in fraught circumstances, feign friendship and, either there and then or a little later inveigle their way into the house, accept an offer of tea, then chat and, with a sordidly practised skill – devilry – turn towards the china, glassware, pictures around them. A casually informed remark leads the owner to think that here is somebody with good interests at heart, a man with a handkerchief in his top pocket and a bow-tie... You can guess the rest. A few fivers down – and rather more twenty-quid notes picked up a few days later. I reeled in shock not only at hearing about this but the glee with which he spoke about these suckers. I didn't say anything but felt very glad to be out in the night air soon after, purged of that.”
     “Ah, so why should that make him snarl in such an awful way?”
    “I thought no more of it, though I used to see him sitting around like this, sometimes with people, and you could sense that he was spinning the yarns, another re-telling of the glory days, as he saw them. An old, shabby Hove.
     “Anyway, come the Election, I was busy round the clock, up and down staircases, plying basement steps at twilight – a necessary mania, as I called it. You never knew what delight a leaflet might inspire, what a chance word with a dog was likely to bring. It was a kaleidoscope of experience, and if some people just wanted to close the door, there were far more who were willing to talk, as if they had been waiting to do so.
      “But one evening it was getting late – not that late, but late in terms of knocking on doors. It was dusk – crepuscule! -, and I wanted to unburden myself of the bag of leaflets or newspapers – as I recall, the handle had snapped and I was clutching it under one arm. I pushed open a gate, went down some steps, which made it all the darker, and was outside a basement flat. The door was open, so I pushed it, thought perhaps it was the outer one to a couple of flats – you'd be surprised how many people can fit into the basement of a once-grand building.
      “But it was one flat, dark, and gave of an air of somewhere that had not been fully treated after a flood. I dropped down the newspaper and, out of consideration, called out that the door was open (you'd be surprised how many people even leave their keys in the lock outside), and then, in the gloaming, I saw him, further in, amidst plates, clothes. He was in a chair, in baggy underwear and a vest, his feet in a washing-up bowl.
      “I said, 'here is a newspaper', put it down, and retreated from something that struck me as being a scene in a Southern gothic tale – one without the gun to hand, though I have no doubt that had there been, I would have sensed some bullets make their shaky way in my direction.
     “You couldn't make it up, I came back up to the pavement, blinking at the twilight and boggling at the turns that life can take when you go out and about.”
      “Well, it's certainly something to dine out on...”
      “On the contrary. I did not mention it to anybody. Seemed to me that – I don't know – there was some hideous justice in it all, that would-be suave air a front for a life gone wrong, the price paid for swindling. But not so long ago I heard from somebody who knows him that time and again he had recounted the story of how I how burst into his place and found him in that degraded state. Not only was it my kindness taken amiss but he himself then broadcast the fact.
       “I am still trying to understand it. What you think?”

 

 

 

 

                                                           THE REDUCED AISLE

 

In those days, few had thought of it as such but no doubt about it now. On the landing the light switch’s inch-thick plastic plunger had been ecological, ahead of its time, and was now often ahead of her progress. What’s more, for years, the bulb had given only semblance of guidance for about as long as it took her to turn the corner - at the shared, sometimes vocal bathroo -, and reach the hallway.
      Where the light switch went out this morning with that ping, a gasp as if no longer able to hold in its breath.
      Brio came with realising that through the doorway’s stained glass - a many-hued, bird-filled survivor from the days when this had been a house for a family and its servants - there came sunlight low in the sky. Its long journey across space ended upon an array of leaflets. Nobody had yet bothered to scoop these up and put them in the wicker basket which was their last resting place pending a return to earth.
      The mat, if not the sub-divided house, was changing. She had noticed a trend for some of these to eschew the glossy paper and garish photographs which made the fast food look even less palatable. Now there were matt paper and elegant typography, an air of the antique, as the timeless attempted to persuade a fast-changing world to peruse the litany of social-media sites listed, discreetly, at the foot of the page.
      “Hand crafted.” So it was, whether candles or pizza. Logburners. And more, here it was again: home cleaning, gutter clearing, garage doors, New Forest holidays, and then it was with a gulp that she let her eyes rest a while upon one which promoted - another new trend, this - a Wedding Fayre at a large civic hall.
      She held the cards above the basket, kept one in her hand and looked down at it. A simple card that could entail the outlay of thousands of pounds. She shook her head, pulled open the door and went out into the bright winter’s day. Even the chill upon her face brought a measure of hope.
      An emblem of this, her life had started to change with the motorised buggy tethered to a post at the foot of the steps, which she took slowly.
     That was the hardest part. Now on firmer ground, she unzipped the plastic tent which adorned the vehicle - a covering which resembled that of the cheap miniature greenhouse fixed in place nearby after being blown over.
      With a sigh which eased her lungs, she bent over to get inside the cabin, and dropped the leaflet in the basket behind the seat. That is how she regarded it, a cabin for the voyage south. So many come to this, a return to the pram which had once been her domain, something which bounced on its springs until conversion, planks and all, into a go-kart. Days depicted in black and white which she remembered as colour.
      What would they all, shouting safely in those streets, have made of this vehicle? She turned the ignition switch, unhooked the brake with continuing difficulty. and pressed the throttle. We have lift-off.
      She steered it towards the pavement, felt the familiar bumps, the clomps as she rode across the triangular, sometimes clattering tiles of the Victorian pathway and drove towards the sun.
      It was always good to get out, away from the room, comfortable enough as she had tried to make it these many years. She was lucky, she had not repined, there was the Library, halts on the way - including the café - when she encountered those she knew one way or another, and you never could tell what yellow-stickered bargains there might be in the supermarket for those unfussed by cowardly sell-by dates.
      Of course, it could all have been far different.
      A jolt on the kerb, but she was now over that, upon a slight incline, the vehicle gave its assured hum. Had she not been enclosed, the wind might even have streamed her hair backwards as it did in the revelry of youth.
      Ah! Yes! Life then could be far bolder than the fixed proclamations upon tattoos nowadays. Why ink out a view of life? She had tried to lived it. And, only the other day, she had seen a girl in black shorts, beneath whose matching stockings was inked, on one thigh, “Westbury”; and on the other “Ales”.
      She never ceased to marvel at the quiddity of the human spirit.
      Another bobbled drop in the kerb was in sight - and, in that second, as the slope of this road met another, down that one came a pink scooter, propelled by a young girl in a bobble-hat, whose upper part was an animal’s face. Out of sight was somebody, a mother who called, “Annabel!” And yet the scooter increased in speed beneath the sun, and in that instant there was the choice between her trying to brake or to swerve before hitting the child.
      Her hands moved quickly, one upon the other, as she had once done upon the crackling dodgems at the Palace Pier; the vehicle lurched across another slab, caught a root - slid towards the kerb.
      The Wedding Fayre leaflet flapped in front of her.
      A blink, a gasp, and there came to mind, in this moment, that evening, after the Theatre Royal - a play which duly petered out at Guildford - when she and Hermione had been asked along by their dates to a small place which went by the name of a supper club on Middle Street. One of those places where the maître d’s jacket was out of with kilter the food which, in effect, supplemented or attempted to justify the champagne served at a series of small tables, each covered by a white cloth.
And, yes, upon a stage scarcely bigger than the tables, there had been a singer, her breasts pushed upwards by a dress as she provided a tribute to the recently-departed Billie Holiday.
      “Lover man, oh where can you be?”
      On the face of it, all a tacky scene, aspiration far outstripping reality.
     As she said at the time, that was Brighton for you, “but I’m from Hove!”
    This banter had caught the ear of a tall man as he walked back to another table. He smiled, paused, looked down.
      “So you’re from across the border? What brings you to this sink of iniquity?”
      She had blushed, and then smiled when grasping that he was not offended but bemused.
      “I like to see how the other tenth lives.”
     She never knew where the phrase came from, let alone its statistical basis, whether indeed it meant anything at all, but it was another one to make him chuckle before walking on.
      Did she realise it at the time, her date - cursed with what some said was the unfortunate name of Nigel - had frowned at this thirty-second exchange.
    Perhaps he had reason to do so. A few days afterwards, she had been walking along the Promenade, west of the Peace Statue, when there came into sight the man from the supper club.
      “Well! Who is it but Miss Hove who hoves into view!”
     He smiled, and she blushed a greeting as he then said, “I don’t think we have been properly introduced. I’m Marcus.”
     He held out his hand, which she took and confessed to being one of those who carried Miss Temple’s name across further generations.
      “‘Sparkle!’ That is what her mother told her to do. Do you?”
     “Er...” She did not know how to match that, but, before long, sparkle she did after that afternoon’s invitation to be “so bold as to cross the border again and have tea at the Bedford”.
       Ah, the Georgian building that was the Bedford, gone the way of so much of life. Arson.
       It was not there, though, that they got to know each other better but the Royal Albion. Suffice to say, one does not dwell on the details, but sparkle she did, with a man who knew everything about the way in which to bring about more glittering spirits than she had ever known.
       She had afterwards looked out at the waves lapping on the pebbled shore and felt at one, with... she could not articulate it and there was no need to do.
      Cinemas, concerts, drives in the country, and then he invited her to his flat, inland at Kemp Town.
      “This is one of her last discs, the voice is gone, but I love it - and it reminds me of the evening I first saw you, Shirley.”
      They had sat back upon the white sofa, arms around shoulders, hands clutched between thighs.    

       And so it was upon many an evening, the two of them, nobody else, until he asked whether she could consider marrying him.
       “Of course!”
      The words came from her without effort but exuded a ready smile of delight, even gathering into a full-on plosive of “Marcus!” as she sank her full lips into his thinner mouth.
       Only after this, as events moved towards the great day, did matters take another turn.
      “We’re going out for a drive!”
       And a drive it certainly was, in the sunlight, above the cliffs, via an inn, and a little to the north, down a lane, past a clump of trees, and the sports car slowed to go along the crunching driveway which curved in front of a fine Georgian building which quite possibly had been a Rectory.
       “What’s this, Marcus?”
       “Mine, ours.”
       “I don’t understand.”
       “I didn’t want to show you before, I’ve had it a while.”
       “Gosh!”
     Her exclamation covered a multitude of emotions which she would spend some time in evaluating.
        For now, they went along one side, to a garden which stretched down to the river. Where she said that she had arranged for the wedding dress.
        “Take me by surprise in it.”
      With which they had gone inside the house - and it was soon after that she had been been strolling on the Promenade when she met Hermione again.
       “And how are you getting on, Shirley? Not seen much of you lately.”
       “Fine!” And she gave a summary of everything which had distracted her. “I’m so happy to have got the dress!”
        “Happy?”
        “Why not?”
        “Aren’t you being a little hasty?”
        “Well, I must say, that’s nice of you! You’re spiteful, jealous, I know it.”
        “Hardly, not me. I’ve got principles.”
        “And just what do you mean by that, might I ask?”
        “You know that he has been in gaol?”
        “What?”
        “Probably not the worst of crimes, but it makes you wonder what his sources are. I think you can always get part of your money back on the dress if you’re lucky. Still, it’s your choice.”

And it had been. The vehicle now turned towards the ground, less smoothly than any sports car, her head’s thud upon the ground not eased by the plastic sheeting upon where much of the blood soon collected.
       Times were when she wondered if she... if she..
       Her eyes closed as the young girl exclaimed, “Mummy!”
       A word by which, despite all hopes, she had never been addressed.