Jenny was wiping down the counter when she watched Shirley hobble to the end of the pier, a carrier bag of stale bread swinging from her left hand as she looked out at the sunset.
The burger bar was hot, uncomfortable work and she went home each day with a fresh burn and the perpetual fog of grease and onions clinging to her skin, no matter how often she showered. A few of her friends at university didn’t have to work, but Jenny’s parents struggled and so she spent long wearying hours on Britannia Pier, serving burgers and hot dogs with shining pyramids of onions, watching people drench them in mustard and ketchup.
Shirley came every day to feed the seagulls, having them flock to her. There would be one, in particular, she had trained to feed by hand. It amused Jenny enough to ask Dave, the owner when he came in to cash up. Dave snorted and shook his head.
‘Ah, Shirley. She’s a nutter, but she’s harmless enough.’ he said. He didn’t look up from the cash count as he spoke.
‘Maybe she could get together with the Puppet Man.’ Jenny said.
Dave kept on counting.
Jenny was disappointed, hoping for a good story out of it.
She was starved of entertainment in Yarmouth. Old friends had passed their sell by date, and it took torrents of false effort, nuggets of nostalgia sealed away in the amber of the everyday. She had tried, but friends were so draining, as much because she put too much stock in it, only to be disappointed when they’d all been bitten by change.
So, her interest honed onto Shirley, a yellowing woman in her late seventies, with a walking stick and a nest of tight, steel coloured hair who fed a seagull every day at sunset.
Jenny came with an offering, a clear bag of stale hotdog and burger buns. She stood as Shirley peered at her over the rims of her spectacles.
‘Thought you might like these.’ she said.
Shirley grunted and snatched them from her grip, faster than Jenny thought possible. Shirley cackled and pointed her stick at her.
‘Think I’m slow because I’m old, don’t you?’ she said
Jenny blushed and shook her head, tripping over her words as her head blazed with embarrassment.
‘No, just I see you feeding the gulls every day and I was only going to throw these away.’
Shirley shook the bag.
‘I don’t feed all the gulls, really. Just my Reg.’
Jenny bit the inside of her cheek, thrilled for this encounter to slide into novelty even as Shirley’s tone made her feel uneasy.
‘It’s sweet you name one of them.’ she said.
Shirley laughed again, a high, twisting shrill laugh which made Jenny’s fillings ache.
‘That’s his name. My Reg.’
Jenny breathed in and asked Shirley what she meant. Shirley gestured over to the end of the pier, then passed back the clear bag of bread products and Jenny took it as they walked over to the end of the pier.
He was a ladies man. Reg Pointer, down from London to get out of a situation with someone’s wife, said he was on holiday. I was born here, and he was something new. Smooth, fancied himself enough for the both of us, and I was younger then. Good legs, bit of a bum and my hair was long and black, down my back.
I lived by the sea and it taught me things.
We met on the seafront, he swaggered up with his chin held high and a fag hanging out the corner of his mouth. I had been in communion and was looking forward to a cup of tea and a pink of whelks. He offered to walk me there, and I was, well it were like he cast a spell on me.
It was like he knew, he could smell the want on me.
He looked like he knew what he was doing, so I went with it. Thing is, with everything else I had going on, it was nice for someone else to take charge of things and he did. He didn’t hurt me like that, when it was just us, he was lovely.
Reg Pointer had too much love in him though.
I forgave the first one. She went blind on the train back to Ipswich.
The second one and the third, well I threatened him. I told him you didn’t cross a Yarmouth girl and he laughed at me. He never raised his hand to me, but he could still hurt me, and laughing at me was the worst. It leaves bruises on your heart, love, and they never heal right.
He slept in the spare room. I went out about midnight, down to the beach and gathered a few things.
Simple acts were the most powerful.
A ring of seaweed.
Stones, but you have to feel them in your hand. After a while, you know the right ones to use.
A prayer, but you would never say them in church. They’re older than any church you could walk into so you say them outside.
I walked back when it was done, crying for the both of us.
I shut the door to the spare room.
A trapped bird is dangerous if its cornered. I had to take a broom to him, to get him to fly out. He had the loveliest eyes, but now they were small and cold, like grapes.
Thing is, I missed him. So I would come to the beach, see if any of them reacted.
He found me, squawking and flapping but he wouldn’t hurt me. I had taught him how to behave himself. So I agreed I would come feed him.
FIfty bloody years though, and I ache all the time but he’s loyal now, though.
Jenny saw Shirley every day of the summer. The following summer, she was interning at a theatre company in London but she came home for the last, lazy weeks of a summer in Yarmouth. Dave joked about her asking for her job back and Jenny got straight to it.
‘Does Shirley still come here?’ she said
Dave frowned and shook his head.
‘Poor thing. Died in her bed. Leaky boiler, it was all over the Mercury.’ he said.
He still didn’t look up, but as Jenny asked him for a favour, she was glad of it.
She walked up with the hot dog roll, ate the sausage and sucked the mustard off her fingers as she watched the bird land on the wooden rail. Its grey plumage looked translucent and it had a scar running down its chest but it stared at her as she offered the sodden bun ahead of her with a hopeful smile.
‘She’d have wanted me to bring you this.’ she said.