You Never Can Tell by Chris Green
Annie and I are sitting in a café called Lemon Jelli sipping peppermint tea. The space is laid out to look like a continental bar with comfortable seating and 1930s French travel posters on the wall. We have come to Newton Abbot for the market. Annie is shopping for shoes. The flimsy ones she bought last week have not lasted well.
‘How old do you think I am?’ says a swarthy stranger sitting on the table next to us. ‘Go on! Have a guess!’
We have not registered his presence up until now. We exchange glances. By the tone of the question, we assume that he is probably older than he thinks he looks. In truth, with his hair greased back like a fifties icon and his short-sleeved plaid checked shirt, he looks about seventy four.
‘Sixty?’ Annie says, diplomatically.
‘No,’ he says, smiling. ‘I’m seventy four. I don’t look it, do I?’
‘No, you don’t. You must live a healthy life,’ I say, turning away and hoping to end the conversation.
It transpires that he lives in Torquay, but he comes from Somerset, Taunton to be precise. Taunton is about sixty miles north of Torquay. He used to be married but is not anymore. He says he doesn’t want to talk about this. He has an eighteen year old daughter, but he doesn’t see her very often except on birthdays and Christmas. She lives in Somerset somewhere but he doesn’t specify where. He used to be an electrical engineer with a company that makes microwave ovens but he retired early at sixty four after his triple heart by-pass.
‘What’s Torquay like?’ Annie asks, before I can stop her. ‘We were thinking of going there one day while we’re down here.’
‘Torquay is great,’ he says. ‘I like living in Torquay. A lot of people say bad things about it, but really its very nice. I know there are lots of druggies, hanging around the streets, but you get that everywhere now, don’t you? I don’t take drugs. I never have, well, only prescription drugs for my heart condition. I’m on twelve different sorts. That’s why I don’t drive anymore. I nearly crashed the car and thought, sod this for a game of soldiers. So I sold the car. That was nine years ago. I’ve got my bus pass of course. I can get around with my bus pass. That’s how I got here today. On the bus. It’s a good service from Torquay to Newton Abbot. And I can get to Exeter and Teignmouth. I can even get back to Taunton, but I don’t like to do that often. You can’t live in the past, can you? You’ve got to move on.’
I start to realise the conversation is going to be a more of a monologue.
Torquay Man doesn’t like gambling either.
‘It’s another addiction, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You can bet on anything, these days, can’t you?’
‘Anything,’ I agree. ‘The Christmas number one, the Christmas number two, the discovery of life on Mars, the Pope to break a leg skiing, The Finnish Wife Carrying Championship…..’
My humour is lost on him. He is not listening. He begins to talk over me.
‘I still bet on horses,’ he says. ‘But I don’t stay in the bookies anymore, I put my bet on and then leave. If I stayed and the horse won, I would probably put the money on another horse and it would probably lose. Sometimes I come here to go to the races. I do like to see the horses running around the track and Newton Abbot is one of the best summer jumps courses.’
‘I didn’t know there was a racecourse,’ Annie says.
‘It’s just up the road. Are you staying around here?’
‘Teignmouth,’ I say, giving Annie a conspiratorial wink. We are actually staying in Dawlish, a few miles north of Teignmouth, but do not want Swarthy Stranger to get wind of this, just in case he finds out where we are and decides to call in.
‘Ah Teignmouth!’ he says. ‘I lived in Teignmouth for a while. In the 1980s. It was a nice place back then. Clean white beaches. Trips around the bay. But now it’s all street drinkers. In the bus shelters. On the prom. On the pier. Everywhere, they are. It’s all right to have a drink, but some people don’t know when to stop, do they? My Uncle Albert was one who liked a drink. I would say to him when he’d had a few, like, Albert, I’d say, I can’t understand a bloody word you’re saying. ……. I used to drink too, mind you, back in the day, when I came back from Aden. Saw some terrible things out there, I did. Make your hair curl. I was a Scammel driver in the Sappers, you know. You don’t hear them called Sappers anymore do you? You wouldn’t believe it now, would you? But all those years ago I was in the Royal Engineers.’
I don’t think it can be anything we say, because Annie and I aren’t been given the opportunity to say very much, but something seems to darken his narrative. A free-floating malice creeps into the monologue. What we took as the friendly banter of a lonely old man becomes a platform for his intolerance and bigotry. The idle youths that hang around the shopping centre ought to be rounded up and sent to boot camps in the Bristol Channel. Benefits scroungers should be put to work cleaning out the sewers, and immigrants should be turned back at Dover or shipped to concentration camps in the Channel. Prisoners should all be put on treadmills and the treadmills linked to the National Grid. It is if he has just read a year’s worth of Daily Mail headlines.
I am now hurrying to finish my peppermint tea and Annie is putting on a few of her scarves and cardigans. Torquay Man can see we are getting ready to leave.
‘Just one more story before you go,’ he says. ‘You’ll want to hear this one.’
‘Another time,’ I say, and with this we are out of the door and walking along Queen Street in the direction of the car.
‘What an awful man!’ I say to Annie. ‘You didn’t have to encourage him so much.’
‘I thought, at first, he just needed someone to talk to,’ Annie says. ‘It’s not easy being old and lonely with nothing to look forward to and time slipping away.’
‘But he didn’t even seem to have time for his family,’ I say. ‘Anyway, let’s get out of here.’
We are parked in the multi-storey car park, a few streets away. We normally avoid these, but when we arrived in Newton Abbot this morning we found ourselves corralled into it. We cannot get near it now. The streets on the approach to the car park are cordoned off. Ahead of us, there is a carnival of flashing blue lights, as police cars, fire engines and ambulances line the streets. People meander this way and that in confusion. No-one seems able to tell us what is going on. Rumours are circulating about a there being a bomb and some local residents have been evacuated.
‘The first I knew about it was these two men in flak jackets in my back yard,’ the lady in the unseasonable raincoat with the black and white cat on her shoulder says. ‘They said I had to leave right away. I asked them what was going on and all they could tell me was that they had their orders.’
‘East Street and Tudor Road are closed off, bloody pigs everywhere.’ the man in the orange boiler suit and the Jesus beard says.
‘They’re shutting down the market,’ the man with the Sticky Fingers t-shirt and the battery of nasal jewellery says. ‘Can you imagine. The market never shuts. This is Newton Abbot.’
‘We can’t get anywhere near the multi-storey,’ I say.
‘There’ll be a few hundred cars in there at a guess,’ the corpulent traffic warden with the limp says. ‘God help us if that goes up.’
‘Probably another suicide bomber, like the one in Plymouth last week,’ the thick-set man with the bull terrier says.
‘I didn’t hear an explosion,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.
‘You don’t always hear them these days,’ Jesus Beard says. ‘They have silent bombs.’
A new task force in army fatigues arrives to move us back further.
‘Could you tell us what’s going on, please?’ I say.
‘What about my market stall?’ Sticky Fingers says. ‘I didn’t lock it up. I got thousands of pounds worth of rare albums there.’
‘I think I may have left the iron on,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.
All comments are greeted with a taciturn silence from the surly militia. Methodically they kettle us like protesters at an anti-capitalist rally.
‘Get your hands off me,’ Jesus Beard yells.
He is forced into a doorway and handcuffed.
This provides the incentive for rest of us move back behind the barricades. These guys are serious about security.
You might imagine that emergency situations like would be tense, but in reality very little happens. Soon, because they can do nothing about it, people accept the situation and start drifting away. Dog Walking Man is probably miles away with his bull terrier and Sticky Fingers Man has probably found a welcoming pub, somewhere where he can tell his tales of the glory days with the blues band that never quite made it.
‘I expect Lemon Jelli is full up now,’ I say to Annie. ‘They’re probably all going there.’
‘Do you want to go back?’ Annie asks.
We take a look at each other and decide to give it a miss. We listen to the busker making his way through the Paul Simon songbook instead.
‘Shame about the shoes,’ I say.
‘We can get some in Exeter tomorrow,’ Annie says.
Eventually, without any explanation, we are given the all clear. It takes half an hour or so to get out of the car park and then we find ourselves in a formidable queue of traffic. Everybody is trying to get out of Newton Abbot. Annie is on her iPhone, trawling the news sites to find information about the incident.
‘It says here that explosives experts were called to two suspect packages found in the town centre,’ she reads from the Exeter Express and Echo website. ‘This prompted a large area to be evacuated. Both devices were detonated safely in controlled explosions. Police are looking for an elderly man with a swarthy complexion and slicked-back hair who was seen acting suspiciously near in the vicinity earlier today. There are reports of a man fitting this description at both of the crime scenes. More details will follow as the information comes in.’
‘You think it was him?’ Annie says.
‘It does sound like it, doesn’t it?’ I say.
‘Shouldn’t we let the police know?’
‘Let them know what? That we had a conversation with a seventy four year old man from Torquay. Besides, he’s not still going to be at Lemon Jelli now, is he,’ I say. ‘He’s long gone.’
‘Do you think that this was the one more story that he was going to tell us?’ Annie asks.
‘You mean like he might have wanted us to turn him in?’ I say. ‘I guess we’ll never know.’
‘Who would have thought?’ Annie says. ‘He’s not what you think of when you think of terrorists.’
‘It goes to show that you never can tell,’ I say. ‘Terrorists don’t all have big beards and unpronounceable names.’
‘He never did say his name, did he?’
‘But he was definitely clean shaven.’
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved