At the End of the Pier
Rows and rows of creamy marble swirls and striped peppermint, all within easy reach, all dissolving into delectable, sugary yumminess. You could hardly blame the two boys ahead of him in the queue for being restless and fidgeting – the surrounding shelves were stuffed full with sweet jars, sticks of glossy pink rock and other tempting treats.
Still, nothing can be done about it, Danny thought. He’d resigned himself to waiting his turn.
Let’s try something different today. “Those fudge pieces, please.” Last time, he’d chosen strawberry-centred chocolates for Nicole. “Six, please.”
His mother had suggested flowers again but Danny knew how much his girlfriend loved her sweets. Dear old Mum. She meant well – always hoping the best for him – but she’d made the usual fuss when he was getting ready to go out. Don’t forget to put on a clean shirt, Danny. Yes, use some of Dad’s aftershave. She was happy for him, she’d said, planting a kiss on his cheek when he set off to meet Nicole, only half-teasing when she said he should invite her home soon to meet the family.
“Here you go.” The shop assistant had finished counting out the change.
Danny took the sweet bag and money off the counter – the queue was even longer now – then departed the shop.
Strolling down the seafront promenade towards the pier, he followed alongside the Carpet Gardens floral display. The best on the south coast, the town boasted every year. He smiled. They certainly were the day he first saw Nicole, stepping off the newly arrived coach that had brought yet another group of visitors to the seaside town for their summer holidays. She’d moved away from the parking bay and stood beside one of the flowerbeds, waiting for the others to disembark, bright sunshine bathing her blonde hair in a brilliant glow.
Danny stared at the display. Though the sky was dull today, the flowers still shone in a rainbow of vibrant colours. He was looking forward to seeing Nicole at their favourite place – it’d been a while since they last met up and he’d missed her terribly.
Passing through the blue-and-white entrance building, Union Jacks fluttering in the sea breeze up above, Danny headed towards the end of the pier.
“Hey, watch it, kids.” The two boys from the shop had rushed past him towards an arcade game further down the amusement hall. They must’ve finished their treats already, he thought.
Danny clutched on tightly to his sweet bag as he proceeded down an aisle lined with gaming machines, variously beeping and flashing, trying to entice him with promises of big pay-outs.
At the end of the aisle, with his back to a mirrored glass cabinet displaying cheap plastic prizes, he gazed up and admired the cathedral ceiling. Art deco scrolls, though faded, were still visible on the archways. This used to be a music pavilion, with a ballroom where he stood. He imagined couples in stylish suits and gowns dancing and twirling around him, ignored by all the patrons who remained firmly fixated on their arcade machines.
Using a joystick, one boy was attempting to move a claw crane into position. Danny had played at the same booth once before with Nicole. The boy released the claw and succeeded in grappling the head of a soft toy, only to see it slip out of the claw’s grasp when the arm was raised. It’d been the same for Danny – he’d tried repeatedly with no luck at all. But it didn’t matter to him and Nicole. They’d had such fun together, she laughing at how hapless he was at the controls, her hand resting on his shoulder.
The claw dropped again.
Nicole. Through the side window of the booth he spied a woman with blonde hair down the next aisle playing on another machine… No, of course it wasn’t her: she’d said to meet up at the end of the pier.
Empty, the claw rose slowly up.
Outside in the brisk salt air, Danny flittered between the different food kiosks on the boardwalk, studying and then restudying their signage. Whelks, cockles… jellied eels. Jellied eels? Down here in Sussex? They’d sell anything for the tourists. Danny stared at the briny mass in one of the tubs. As a Londoner, Nicole was undoubtedly familiar with it, but he couldn’t imagine her touching the stuff. He backed away from the counter.
Fish and chips… Yes, they could get some at the entrance building on the way out, he thought. Actually… no, too stodgy. He glanced over to another kiosk. An ice cream would be better… or candy floss, doughnuts or…
Danny felt the sweet bag in his hand. Maybe this was enough.
Further down the boardwalk, he stopped outside a gift shop he’d previously visited with Nicole. They’d spent time browsing through the souvenirs on display around the entrance and had joked about the garish T-shirts and other crappy merchandise on offer. Danny remembered how he’d pretended to wear one of the tattoo stickers on his arm, swearing that he would’ve got a real one if she’d liked the idea. They’d both then giggled at the naked women on a saucy seaside postcard she’d taken off one of the stands.
“Quick, hide,” she’d squealed when a group of old ladies approached the shop.
Concealing themselves behind a bunch of balloons, they’d pressed up hard against each other, and Nicole held the postcard close to her bosom. “Have they gone, Danny?”
He’d felt her warm breath, seen the softness of her lips as she’d smiled. “Yes.”
The balloons were still on display. He brushed them aside and peered inside the window. Good, it’s there. Danny intended to bring Nicole back here and buy the friendship ring for her.
In a gust of wind the balloons swung towards him. He swept them away and caught sight of the blonde-haired woman again as she entered the shop with a male companion.
Danny shivered. He knew how fast the seaside weather could change. Seeking shelter, he strode briskly on towards the tearooms and then over to the other side of the windbreakers.
The air was much calmer here. Just like it’d been that one evening when they’d returned for a stroll along the boardwalk. Danny regarded the blue lampposts. The whole pier had been lit up that night. Holding hands, they’d ambled by empty benches, while above them a magical line of lights hung between all the lampposts and on the sides of the buildings. He remembered the way Nicole looked at him in the radiance, coyly to one side, her blonde hair covering part of her face. He’d been drunk on her fragrance.
This was their place: this pleasure pier, this palace of hopes and dreams. The two of them, away from it all ‑ away from the town, London, other people. Feeling as though they’d landed on a deserted island far out at sea. The bright moon and lulling of waves. A golden shimmer on the dark water below.
And he remembered how she’d swept her hair back from her face before they’d kissed, standing in an embrace at the end of the pier. Danny had never wanted the moment to end.
With his forearms resting on the cast-iron railing, cold against his skin, Danny leaned over the balustrade and surveyed the pebble beach down below where an old couple sat in deckchairs, braving the fresh breeze.
Summer was almost gone. Most of the coaches had already left but a few tourists would stay longer, he knew: though only the elderly, retired sort.
The wind felt stronger on his face now.
Nicole was going back home soon, and the last time they spoke she’d told him how busy she’d been. “I’ve had lots to pack, Danny.”
He was so looking forward to visiting her in London, he’d said.
“That’s great, Danny.” She’d excused herself, having more packing to do.
He stared at the row of hotels all along the seafront. Rather than meet on the pier, he’d wanted to surprise Nicole at her hotel. But he couldn’t, not knowing which one she was staying at.
Danny turned his head and watched waves washing over the groynes down on the beach.
I’ll make sure to ask her this time, he thought.
There wasn’t far to go now – just to the other side of the pavilion. Danny checked for the sweet bag he’d placed inside his pocket for safekeeping. I’m ready.
Below the pavilion’s large white dome, he could see the outside staircase leading up to the roof terrace and the entrance to the camera obscura room. People would huddle around the large dish in the middle of the darkened room, and as the camera turned they could see a grainy picture of the surrounding view outside: the kiosks and people on the decking, cars along the seafront, the hotels, the beach reaching up to the South Downs, and the sea beyond the pier.
Danny remembered it well. Their first date. Nicole next to him at the edge of the dish, studying the moving image, her hair hanging down the sides of her shoulders. Then he’d touched her for the first time – his hand brushing hers, ever so briefly. And though he couldn’t see her face, he knew she must’ve felt it too...
After noticing the time up on the terrace clock, Danny hurried down the walkway along the side of the pavilion, eager not to be late now. His mother always said he was too much of a dreamer.
“Sorry, mate.” He’d almost bumped into a bleary-eyed barman who was locking up the nightclub doors.
“That’s all right.”
Danny had hated the place. He usually didn’t go clubbing but Nicole had insisted. They’d danced for a few songs before he lost her in the crowd. Lads and lasses squashed together, all tarted up, bodies strutting, sweating. The bass thud-thudding. He’d pushed his way through, grabbing hold of one giggling blonde-haired girl after another, frantically searching for her.
Racing round the corner, Danny ran straight into the wind, and startled a pair of seagulls who flew off, abandoning their meal of fish and chips dropped on the boardwalk.
Nicole wasn’t there...
Just an old angler perched on the platform down the steps. Beside him was the disused landing stage, as brittle as the iron pillars that held up the decking beneath their feet. And behind him the wide grey-green sea, with the dull sky up above.
The angler nodded.
Danny nodded back, then stood at the railing and waited. Choppy waves kept crashing up against the landing stage.
Eventually the angler spoke. “Weren’t you here yesterday?”
The angler glanced towards the walkway. "Waiting for someone?"
“Yes, my girlfriend, but she’s running late.” Danny checked his watch. “She... she must be busy."
"Don't you worry – she'll show up soon. Like the fish, mate. You've got to be patient with these things.”
“Yes – yes, of course.”
Danny felt very much alone. Like that time when he’d sought cover at the entrance building during the rain and watched all the coaches leave the parking bays, one by one. He glanced down at a bin close by and noticed the old, unopened sweet bag still inside. Strawberry-centred chocolates. He felt for the fudge in his pocket. She’ll come this time. I’ll wait for her, wait here at the end of the pier.
About the Author: Andrew Stiggers lives in Auckland, New Zealand. His short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in various anthologies and literary journals, and his achievements include being the winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories category) for his historical-fiction collection: “The Glassblower’s Daughter and Other Tales from Southwest Germany”. He was also the winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story, and a finalist for the Tasmanian Writers' Prize 2015. His work can be found here, and you can catch his latest news here.