Part of the sea wall that runs along the Front dates from Roman times, and the buildings in Cribble-Sodding’s High Street look like they haven’t had a lick of fresh paint since before Christ either.
The sky was a leaden colour, low and roiling. Under it, the gulls wheeled and screamed in an insane fashion. There was no one out on the sand. The deckchairs were stacked and battened-down under canvas, and the Dodgem track was padlocked. The wind blew cold and harsh, full of a stench of rotting seaweed.
“It’s a bleak bloody place, isn’t it?” Alec commented.
“It’s a bit cheerier in summer.”
Then, the beach was packed with smiling Swedes and pot-bellied Yanks; with smelly Greeks and preening Frenchmen and flirting Italians; with Spaniards cavorting over the sand pretending to be flamenco dancers, and Germans being miserable, and Japanese throwing up.
They left the car near the Promenade, and Alec followed Tommy up the High Street, past a closed gift shop, a scruffy cafe and a boarded-up game arcade, seeing not a soul abroad.
Tommy stopped before a peeling signboard that showed the silhouette of a geisha with what looked like a pair of knitting needles plunged into the back of her skull. Across it were the words:
The Moonlight Lady.
They went down a stairway that smelt not of the Orient but of beer bottles and cooking grease. The premises at the bottom were cavernous, the whitewashed walls undecorated, and the tables solid wood.
A bar ran the length of one wall, and down the far end was the small stage, oblong and only slightly raised, like a memorial slab over the grave of Tommy Dugdale’s career as a comic.
An unshaven man in a red bra and panties and black stockings sat on the stage on a stool, picking at his teeth with a fingernail. Around him lay the frilly female clothes he had shed and the things he had used in his act – a parasol, a water pistol and some broken eggs on a sheet of newspaper.
Sally Shaw was at the bar, talking about him with another man.
“What can I say, Harry?”
“You liked the act, Sally. Don’t tell me you didn’t.”
“He’s just not pretty.”
“He’s not got his makeup on. I told you that. Of course, he’ll shave and wear his wig.”
“Look at that belly.”
“He’s a bloke, isn’t he? It’s natural in a bloke. But that’s the point, isn’t it? If he was a real woman, it wouldn’t be interesting, would it? Listen, Sally, when you were watching the act, what was going through your mind? I’ll tell you. This is different, you were thinking. This is original.”
“What was going through my mind was, this could get me closed down.”
Sally glanced at Petula, for that was his stage name.
“He’s blank. Do you see what I mean? Wooden.”
“He’s had a hard life, not much to smile about.”
“Can he sing?”
“If he could sing, he wouldn’t be doing this shit for a living, would he?”
“I’m sorry, Harry.”
From the stage, Petula asked, “Can I get dressed?”
“Does she want me to pay for the eggs?”
“I don’t know. Do you, Sally?”
She smiled at Petula.
“It’s all right, luv.”
Petula picked up all her things and went into the kitchen behind the bar to change. Tommy stepped onto the vacated stage. His fingers tapped the mike awake, and his smoker’s rasp echoed off the walls.
“Have you heard of the Canadian Wu-Wu Bear, ladies and gentlemen? You haven’t? It’s fabled. It’s very rare and it lives in caves only in the far north of Canada. I’ve got this pal, he’s a hunter, and the passion of his life was to shoot a Wu-Wu Bear.
“So he hired a guide and they spent the whole hunting season tramping about in the far north of Canada. They didn’t have any luck, winter was coming on and the guide had had enough. But my pal was made of flintier stuff. He decided to carry on alone. The guide gave him a piece of advice.
“When you come to the mouth of a cave, he said, give the Wu-Wu Bear mating call. If there’s one inside the cave, it’ll answer. The Wu-Wu mating call goes like this:”
He put his lips close to the mike.
“WuuuuuuWuuuuuu WuuWuu WuuuuWuuuu.”
“So, off my mate goes. For a few more days, nothing at all, then, just when he’s beginning to lose heart, he comes to this cave and pokes his head inside and gives the mating call…
“This time, there’s a response, very faint…WuuuuuuWuuuuuu WuuWuu WuuuuWuuuu. He cocks his rifle and steps inside. He makes the mating call again, and again comes the response, closer this time and louder…Closer and louder…Closer and louder…And the train ran right over him and killed him dead.”
Petula, in jeans and a biker’s leather jacket, sat down at the bar next to Harry.
“Have you got your stuff?” Harry asked her. “Have you got the water pistol? Because it’s my son’s.”
“It’s all in the bag.”
“Come on, then.”
Petula looked at Sally.
“You don’t like me, then?”
“It’s nothing personal.”
“I left the eggs in the kitchen, wrapped in the newspaper.”
“Thanks. Lose a bit of weight, luv. And get a bigger bra. You’re young now, but you’ll feel the benefit of a bigger one later. Bye, Harry.”