Pantry Prose: A Deckchair on Southport Beach by Sally Shaw

The day it began; I was me. Mabel and I had fled the wages office of Tyrers department store, to the gardens in Palmer Square. We sat on the last vacant bench, amidst giggles, mid-conversations of folk out on a mid-summer’s lunchtime. Some were courting couples, office workers, and shop assistants, others, faded mothers chasing toddlers around pushchairs. The zing of mowed grass crashed with fumes of passing vehicles. I longed for a sea breeze and deckchair on Southport beach.

Mabel chattered away about her wedding plans, while I tugged a dog hair from my meat paste sandwich. I dragged my finger against the edge of the bench to hide the fur. Meat paste clogged the ridges of my palate, and I stretched another hair from my mouth, too long to be Albert’s. I glanced at Mabel’s ponytail.

“Are you not going to finish your sandwich? After I took the time to make it for you. Oh, did I mention my wedding will be in the grounds of Charles’s parents’ stately home in Cumbria?”

Mabel had finished her sandwich and sunk her teeth into a Vanilla slice. She held out a jam tart for me. I gagged on what remained of the bread and paste, swallowed hard, before I praised Mabel for making such a tasty sandwich. I took the tart. She continued to talk and talk enlightening me to how lucky Charles was that she had agreed to marry him. How he wasn’t the best-looking man, that, that wasn’t critical as he absolutely worshiped her. I responded in what I considered to be a polite way, by asking her a simple question.

“How come your Charles hasn’t been round ours to say hello?”

She’d been going on and on about Charles and the wedding since we met, on her first day in wages. That was a month ago. Within a week we had become best friends and flat mates, although I couldn’t recall agreeing to that.

Mable spat out the answer to my enquiry, her changed tone and menaced wide-eyed glare unnerved me. I felt I was the one in the wrong. She knew I hated being called Liz.

“Liz, really, why would I bring him around to meet you of all people.”

She sniggered while dabbing the sides of her upturned lips with a pink cotton napkin. My response, squashed by a battered self-worth. I retrieved the napkin she’d tossed onto the bench next to me and folded it before putting it into my handbag along with my pride.

“Oh, best be getting back, don’t want Miss Twist picking you up on your time keeping. Oh by the way, I’ve mentioned to Miss Twist you’ll do my late this Friday. Charles is whisking me away for a romantic weekend.”

“I can’t I’m…”

“You can, I’ve told your Jimmy you’re spending the weekend with your best friend, me!”

She puckered her matt red lips, pressed her little finger to the left corner of her mouth then clicked shut her compact. She took hold of my chin and told me I’d be pretty if I smiled more, before kissing my cheek. I smiled. We walked back to work, with no more said about Friday only the sound of Mable’s voice whittering on about how special she was, and that Charles knew he was lucky. She had me carry her handbag. I walked two steps behind her, as she strutted and laughed.

“I feel like the Queen with my lady in waiting.”

I couldn’t recall why I’m her friend. Betty from our office stopped to chat, Mable placed herself at the centre of the conversation and I wasn’t acknowledged by either of them. I felt myself sink to the bottom of my stomach like I was riding the front car of the rollercoaster at Southport Pleasure Land. I never returned from the pit of my stomach. Once Betty had gone Mable grabbed my hand.

“Come on, darling, we’re going to be late. Don’t you worry I’ll let Miss Twist know it was Betty’s fault.”

For the rest of that day, I was the most important person in her life in a strange unforgiving way.

I’m sat on a deckchair, on Southport beach. Sand swirls above the damp ridges formed by the tide, like fairies and elves dancing around my bare feet. I’ve shoved my knee length tights into my sensible shoes. I curl my toes down, halos form around them, dry sand rolls over pale skin. There’s a chill to the early October day, I wished I’d come in June, even though that wasn’t possible as she was still alive. I look for the sea, far away a murky greenish line forms a break in the skyline. I turn to my left and right, I’m alone. Tiny figures move up and down the pier a mile away. A drip forms on the tip of my nose. I consider wiping it on my coat sleeve but think it’s not what a sixty-five-year-old should do. I reach down grab my handbag, balance it on my knee, I pull out what I think is my handkerchief and pinch my nose. As I scrunch it up with my spindled fingers a wave of sickness hits me. The pink cotton napkin falls into my lap, I thought I’d thrown it out with the rest of her belongings. The wind catches hold of it, and it takes flight like a kite. A quote from Lauren Bacall pops into my head ‘Imagination is the highest kite that one can fly.’ The napkin descends landing like a shroud over my feet. In that moment of flight, it hit me, I rummage in my bag searching for a mirror. I pull out her compact and remember her giving it me at the end of that mid-summers day when I found her hair in my sandwich and she made me feel guilty. How have I not thrown these items; I must be going senile. I snap open the compact, a cloud of power puffs up and is lost in the sand. I hold the mirror up to check my nose is clean. A face stares back at me, I look behind me and back to the face, it’s still there. I hear a voice shouting.

“I’ve not been myself for forty-five years.”

The words echo like the distant sound of the ocean from a shell held to my ear as a child. Whiffs of salty-seaweed seep into my nostrils with each stuttered breath; brings me to my senses like a dose of smelling salts. I close my eyes and I’m sat at her bed side. Her matt red lips, faded by time and ill health. Her laced skinned left hand lies ringless and flat, dissolving into the white sheet. Her chest clicks as it rises and falls, like a young robin calling for its mother. The click is interrupted by a chilled silence of impending demise. I count the seconds to the next bird call. I’m up to fifteen, click, nothing, click. The silence crashes into my ears, I fill this gap and mute the clicks for help with the brevity of my voice.

Mable, I stopped liking you on the day you made ‘me’ fade. You started the process a month before, but I was too moulded to notice. I was so happy to have a best friend. I was never the popular one, never chosen by the netball captain, or for a last dance at the Town Hall. You brightened the wages department and picked me as your friend. You separated me out from my family like a sheep dog. I took your guilt and you were the shining light that everyone flew to, like moths. You collected moths, to take the pleasure of being wanted and the glory of winning. Mable, I’m quiet for a moment, until I hear the click. Mable, you stole me, you continuously had an answer for why you needed me to stay, if I left, you’d, well, you hinted I would be the one to find you. Charles, you said died in a boating accident. I never mentioned I saw you walking alone from my deckchair on Southport beach, that romantic weekend. Charles was killed a week later. Miss Twist fell down the stairs that lead to the shop floor. It was you who found her. I didn’t tell you I’d left my handbag in the staff restroom that evening and seen you with Miss Twist. You cried crocodile tears at the grave side of Miss Twist. Her family comforted you. A month after the funeral you became Wages Supervisor. I forgot who I was, if anyone asked, I’d say I’m Mabel’s friend.

I hear another click, I count, to a thousand. I have my wish of a deckchair on Southport beach.

Sally has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and is currently working on her novel based in 1950s Liverpool. She sometimes writes poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, her own childhood memories, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan, Liz Berry and Emily Dickinson.

She has had short stories and poetry published in various online publications, including The Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth and in a ebook anthology ‘Tales from Garden Street’ (Comma Press Short Story Course book 2019).

Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam.

You can find more of Sally’s work here on Ink Pantry.

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