As new years eve beckons and a night of sober reflection and soul searching does not, I would like to give you a little gift of this short story, inspired by recollections of summers spent in North Norfolk.
Water poured down the windows of Maureen’s café. It poured down the inside also, as banks of kettles steamed and the great, hot mouth of the stove bellowed opened. As if she stoked some inverse tramp steamer, Maureen used a spade to shovel another batch of scones onto a cooling rack, and thudded the door shut with a floral print foot. Sleeves rolled up over meaty white forearms; she slung her scone shovel into the sink and turned grimly to feed the next round of teapots.
Her sister Wendy juggled the hot scones onto their plates and sliced each open with the motion of one decapitating an aristocrat. She encircled them with cream and jam in a variety of containers. Eggcups, ramekins, washed out jam jars and even a lidless mustard pot were all pressed into service. Pausing only to drag on the cigarette she’d balanced on the windowsill, she heaved her tray out backwards, vast denim clad backside first.
Crossing the linoleum brown hallway she forced her way into what from March till September was called ‘the tearoom’. Her sister’s good suite languished in the outhouse under an old tarpaulin, annually usurped by a rag-taggel assortment of chairs and small tables. The gas fire blazed on four bars, and the air was ripe and as steamy as the kitchen.
Every table was full, all but three occupied with Maureen’s chief cliental, Twitchers; responsible for flavouring the air with waxed jacket.
The placed rustled with hastily un-zipped pack-a-macs and the hall outside sprouted a forest of green wellies. Grey sock feet clustered under miss-matched tables, their owners eager to glean secrets while guarding their own. Telescopes, binoculars and cameras balanced precariously among the cacophony of crockery; melted butter was accidentally smeared on zoom lenses and jam wiped on fishermen’s trousers, internally running with sweat. Over the chorus of waterproofs, the radio struggled to gossip about the up and coming wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Dianna Spencer. Unless the heir to the throne had decided to wed a lesser-spotted flycatcher, it was fighting a loosing battle to be heard.
The three tables not occupied by Twitchers held a pair of retired vicars debating the moral implications of ordering a full English as opposed to a light English tea; three lads with a telephone and the Marks family on holiday.
Clive Marks had a brother who owned a holiday cottage on the cost, and Clive saw no reason to spend money on foreign travel while the children were young. His wife Alice secretly harboured a dream of the pair of them painting in the Dordogne, under a blistering sun while they enjoyed a rough red wine from a local vineyard. Recently Clive had faded from her vision, just as the owner of the vineyard had grown younger, developed a penchant for removing his shirt and shaking down his tousled hair.
Their son Spencer was young enough not to regret his parent’s naming blind spot, and was happily working his way through his third scone. Their daughter Sarah had not touched hers, and would have been annoyed to be considered a child. She was uncomfortably aware of her first bra, an unforgiving white creation with more scaffolding than necessary. She was more aware of the three lads sat round the telephone with an intensity usually only mustered by thirteen-year-old girls.
There was a blonde lad, a dark lad and a ginger lad, and by the time Sarah returned to school in September, they would be good looking. The Twitchers watched them with as much intensity as Sarah, but their interest focused on the telephone. It rang, the lads exchanged resigned glances and one lost the unseen game of "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
He answered it.
‘’Ello, Maureen’s…no…no…we ain’t seen none of them ones since last week. Marsh Harrier? Over Great Snoring way I think, boy. What you seen then?’
The Twitchers caught a whiff of excitement, and the buzz of conversation faded. Wendy dumped her plates of scones on the tables, oblivious to furious glances as the Twitchers strained to hear.
‘A what now?’ The boy paused, his pen hovering over a large pad of paper. His companions sniggered, aware he was milking the moment. Sarah sniggered as well, though she didn’t know why.
‘Over by there…so that’s out by Little Creek way then…a white throated what?’
Hands surreptitiously closed over camera straps, necks craned trying hear without appearing eager.
‘Dipper?’ The lad finished.
In a flurry of camouflage and telescopic lenses, the dun coloured flock took flight. Teapots clattered, half eaten scones were crammed into mouths; woolly grey feet wriggled into boots and in a matter of moments, Maureen’s front room was empty.
Wendy waited until the last were gone, and methodically began re-stacking her tray.
‘Maureen!’ She bellowed from the side of her mouth, ‘take a pew, girl!’
‘My goodness,’ remarked Clive, ‘bad luck for you.’
‘No tain’t.’ Wendy grinned. ‘They’ll be back later.’ She jerked her head toward the lads. ‘Them boys gets reports from phone boxes up and down like, that’s why Twitchers come here. They’ll be back.’
‘People phone in with sightings?’ Alice asked.
‘Yup.’ Wendy looked out of the window. ‘Gonna be fine now.’ She said as if she controlled the weather along with the supply of scones.
‘What an interesting service,’ Alice said buttering her teacake. ‘And all for free, I wonder if it has a name?’
‘What do you mean?’ Clive refilled his cup.
‘Oh, you know, like the speaking clock.’
‘With all those birds involved, maybe it should be the tweeting clock.’ Clive snorted a laugh.
‘Yes,’ said Alice, ‘or maybe Twittering clock.’
‘Twitter.’ Clive frowned, ‘that would never catch on.
Alice bit into her teacake. The blond lad winked at her.