Mark Finney’s footsteps echoed as he walked across the rusty, metal railway bridge. A steely fog was spreading itself across the town and he could no longer see the trains creeping slowly below him. He walked carefully down the steps and paused at the bottom. Smudges of streetlamps trailed off into the distance down Lothian Road. Finney headed off along the cobbled street, past the rows of partially demolished terraced houses that looked like broken teeth.
Although he couldn’t see her in the darkness, Finney knew that Gertie Wainwright was stood on her doorstep in her flowered apron, rusty scissors in her hands. His wife’s aunt had become a barber during the war since all of the local barbers had been called up to fight and she’d even kept it up for a while after peace had been declared. Still, each night, come rain or shine, Gertie stood on her step waiting for her husband George to come home even though, 20 years after the war had ended, there was still no sign of him.
Finney chuckled to himself. She was a mad old bird that one but then the whole Wainwright family were off their rocker. Some blamed shell shock but he didn’t know about that. He just regretted marrying into that batty brood. He thought about Rose and the acid in his stomach gurgled.
It started to rain as Finney opened the door to The Fisherman’s Arms. The pub was warm and welcoming. It smelt of meat pies and pipe smoke. Its brown and red colours were soothing. The pub was almost empty, probably due to the combination of the fog and the impending blackout, which would happen without warning like every other night. The bloody strike was taking its toll, for sure. Finney took off his cap and scarf and went to the bar. Alice. the landlady, had her hair in a pink beehive and wore a glittery pink dress.
‘Off down The Rink later?’ said Finney.
‘Aye,’ said Alice. ‘As per usual. Got me dancin’ shoes on, like.’
She lifted a leg to show a sparkly pink shoe.
Keith, Alice’s husband, came out of the snug with a tray full of empty glasses. His thinning hair was plastered down with Brylcreem and his white shirt stuck to his skin with sweat.
‘The usual?’ said Keith.
‘Aye,’ said Finney.
Keith poured a pint of Strongarm and Finney licked his lips.
‘Can I have it on tick?’ said Finney, grinning. ‘I’ll pay you when I win the pools.’
‘That will be right,’ said Keith, grimacing.
Finney paid for his beer and took it into the snug.
There were two old men sat smoking pipes and playing dominoes. Charlie Naylor, a retired copper who always looked on the verge of a heart attack, and Bill Wainwright, Finney’s father in law. His bushy eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead and made him look permanently confused.
‘How’s tricks?’ said Finney.
He sat down.
‘Charlie’s been down London,’ said Bill.
‘Oh, aye, said Finney. See the Queen, did you?’ said Finney.
‘Near, as dammit,’ said Charlie. ‘You can’t tell the lads from the lasses down there.’
They all chuckled.
‘How’s our Rose, by the way?’ said Bill. ‘I haven’t seen hide nor hair of her for weeks.’
Finney’s stomach gurgled.
‘She’s not been well,’ he said. ‘Woman’s troubles, again.’
Bill glared at Finney. And then everything turned black.
Reverend Walter McKenzie said a final prayer and picked up his suitcase just as the lights went out.
‘Oh, bugger,’ he said, as he hit a leg on one of the pews.
He furtively edged his way to the front of the church, opened the front door and stepped out onto Lothian Road. It was the darkest he’d ever seen it. He could hear a fog horn roaring over the Headland and just about make out the beams from the lighthouse. McKenzie locked up The Church of The Nazarene and walked down the street. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders but an even greater one had been placed on them. He looked his digital watch and upped his pace. The train would be at the station at midnight and he hoped Rose would be there, too.
Rose was glad she’d packed before the blackout. She only had one candle left, she’d ran out of them the day before, and all the shops on Lothian Road had sold out. She’d been listening to The Navy Lark on Radio 2 when, as luck would have it, her transistor radio’s batteries had died. Now all she could hear was the grandfather clock’s ticking. She poured herself another glass of sweet sherry, sat on the settee and waited for Finney to come back from the pub.
‘Oh, off we trot, then,’ said Charlie. He followed a path of candles that led to the pub’s toilets.
Finney took the remains of Charlie’s rum and poured it into his beer. He hoped that Bill hadn’t seen him. There was only one candle in the snug and it was flickering.
‘Benny Trout’s looking for a butcher’s assistant,’ said Bill.
‘Oh, aye,’ said Finney. His stomach gurgled.
‘You not fancy it, then?’ said Bill.
‘Still on the sick, aren’t I,’ said Finney.
Charlie tutted and Finney could feel his anger brewing, ready to boil. He finished his drink and staggered to his feet.
‘I’m off home,’ said Finney.
‘Say hello to our Rose,’ said Charlie.
‘Oh, I certainly will,’ said Finney, pushing past Bill as he left.
Finney’s front door jammed as he tried to open it but he slammed into it and pushed it open. His bladder was ready to burst so he rushed through the living room, into the kitchen and then out into the back yard. He swore as he banged against the coalhouse. Rose heard the toilet door creak open. She smiled. Finney hadn’t noticed her sat on the sofa. He probably expected her to be in bed, waiting for him, as usual.
The clock struck eleven and Rose stood up, fastening her coat and tying the cashmere scarf that the Reverend had given her around her bruised neck. The toilet flushed and Finney staggered into the kitchen as the blackout ended and the lights came back on. He shielded his eyes from the glare and didn’t see Rose stood behind the kitchen door holding the cutthroat razor that her Aunt Gertie had given her.
The Newcastle train’s lights cut through the fog as it pulled into the railway station. Rose could see the Reverend McKenzie smiling as she walked toward him. She could never get used to calling him Walter – she’d know him since she’d been a child, after all – but that would surely change after they were married in Gretna Green.
‘A fresh start,’ said the Reverend, as he took Rose’s suitcase from her.
‘I hope so,’ said Rose, relieved that she’d brought the cutthroat razor with her, just in case.
©Paul D. Brazill