Sarah looked into the wrinkled face of an old woman with long greasy white hair. “Yes?”
“Can I have a sandwich? I’ve only got a pound. The young man in the arcade gave it me, bless his soul.”
Sarah felt her heart skip a beat. That’d be Harry. Her Harry. “You can have a cheese and pickle bap, and I’ll throw in a coffee, how’s that?”
The old woman gave a faint smile. “That’ll be good, I’m hungry. Is there somewhere to sit down?”
Sarah gestured down the promenade. “There’s a bench just over there. I’ll bring them over to you.”
Beyond the bench, a row of brightly-coloured beach huts extended down the seafront. Their soulless windows gazed out at the wide sandy beach, stretching for miles in either direction, and out at the calm sea under a bright blue sky. In the haze of the far distance was the white funnel of a steamer.
Sarah took the food to the old woman then returned to the café, startled to see two men waiting for her. They were well-built, strong-looking, unfriendly, she thought. Both were dressed in black suits with white shirts open at the collar. Both wore dark glasses. One proffered a photograph.
“Have you seen this man?”
Sarah looked and felt sick. It was Harry. She tried to stay calm. “No.”
“His name’s Frank. Frank Cooper.”
Sarah felt relief wash over her. It did look like Harry, but the hair was much shorter and this man, Frank, wore glasses. Harry didn’t. it must be a coincidence, she told herself.
At two o’clock, the café owner, Sally, came to relieve her for an hour. “How’s it going?”
Sarah brushed back her long brown hair. She felt grains of sand, hard and gritty against the softness. “It’s been quiet.”
Sally smiled wistfully. “It’s late in the season.”
Taking her jacket, Sarah headed down to the arcade, feeling apprehensive, hoping Harry wasn’t in trouble. She was sure her mother wouldn’t approve of Harry, but, well, she was at college now, old enough to make her own decisions. When they suited her, anyway. Harry was what, maybe ten years older than her? He said he’d been a teacher at a school in Surrey for a few years.
“Why did you leave?” she’d asked.
Harry had shrugged, his handsome face splitting with a boyish smile. “Time for a change, I suppose. I needed some sea air, time to think things through. Anyway, if I hadn’t left I wouldn’t have met you!”
Sarah had wanted to hug him, tell him her hopes and desires, spill out all the hurt of her father’s death, but it was early days. There was no rush, she’d be in the area for three more years, at college or here, working in the beachside café, The Sea Shell.
At the arcade, Sarah was shocked to see a woman in the kiosk, a woman she didn’t recognise. Waiting to speak to her, she stood behind a youth wanting change. Then she noticed a stain on the wall behind the kiosk, a spattered pattern, as if someone had slipped and spilt a glass of red wine, then frantically tried to clean it off the wall before it was noticed. Without much success by the look of it.
“Where’s Harry?” she asked.
The woman looked up, disinterested, boredom etched on her plain, unattractive face. “Hospital.”
Sarah felt like she would throw up. “What. Why?”
“Heard he got beat up. Two hard geezers.”
Sarah became aware of someone behind her, puffing with impatience to get change for the machines. “What! But why would anyone want to hurt Harry?”
The woman stifled a yawn. “How am I supposed to know?”
“What’s it to you, anyway?”
“Harry and me, well ….”
The woman raised her eyebrows. “Bit old for you, I’d have thought.”
Sarah felt her eyes and cheeks burning.
“Come on, love, hurry up, I need some change.”
Sarah turned to face a huge woman with a red face and thick red sunburnt legs. She wanted to hit her, strike her hard across her ugly fat face. Instead, she moved away to hide her tears.
Sarah looked down on two eyes peering through a mass of bandages. “Harry, what happened?”
A nurse squeezed her hand. “You can have ten minutes, love, then he’ll need to rest.”
“I’m sorry, Sarah.” Harry’s voice wheezed through his teeth, those beautiful white teeth she’d admired. Now a couple were missing, as if they’d been painted black.
She held Harry’s hand as she listened to his story. A story that brought her world crashing down, but one she hoped would be the truth this time. How his name was really Frank Cooper, though it was true he’d been a teacher, a music teacher, someone who’d loved to play the guitar and piano. Then had come the drugs – cocaine, ecstasy, heroine even, though he’d not used it himself, or so he said. But he’d seen a way to make easy money, a way to get out of his tiny flat and buy a decent car too. Then, after a couple of years of dealing, he’d had the biggest one yet. It had seemed a good idea to simply collect the money and disappear. No one would find him at a quiet seaside resort.
“Please come and see me, Sarah, whilst I get better. There’s no one else.” It seemed an effort for him to speak any more. His eyes closed and he lay still.
Sarah felt her eyes brimming with tears. She squeezed a bandaged hand. Suddenly her young life was full of responsibility. A responsibility she wasn’t sure she wanted. “Sure, Harry, sure I will.”
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