When I step inside, Esther is sitting down with Finn. A small hard thing, to flee, to drive away from one life to the next.
Esther stacks their coats beside her, pushing them down with her palms.
‘Like that,’ she says, patting them down. ‘I expect it will rain, later.’
A cable of water from the pool gathered on the sill next to her pours onto a sleeve and Esther brushes it away, then brushes it off the blue vinyl seat beside her.
In here, everyone is no one. I imagine all the endless tubs of chips through the hard summers. There’s a film of scum and condensation on the window and, outside, I can see the Sierra cooling now, steaming on the thin grit of the forecourt. Bar the wreck in the corner, ours is the only car. The sun is low, it hangs above the beach precinct, behind oily clouds: a worn eye.
I turn and stare at the metal counter with its scribbled menus, then look up to the smeared stainless steel wall above the oil fryers. I think of those last few hours on the coast: the white roads spanned by power cables and bordered by marram grass, the clouds that lifted into endless tiers of rain, so much rain it seemed we would drown. The sea always out of sight, but that iodine smell coming through the car, between the sacks and baggage. Sometimes, I saw a thin high bird sweeping through the cloud-line.
Why did they do that? Block the views of the sea with dykes? Is it a sort of defence against something? Something pouring in to the marsh? I thought they were salt already.
Finn is emptying the salt from a shaker on to the melamine table and pushing it around with his toy, he’s breathing heavily again, but there is no need to worry. Esther stares at the walls, reading, squinting at the specials, ‘Hey, they have rock,’ she whispers to herself. She checks the faded health certificates and the sprawl of bleached, misaligned photographs. ‘They have eel here,’ she says. Besides us, there’s no one in the café.
I hear something on the other side of a folding leatherette partition and guess the owners know we have arrived. They will be coming out soon. At this time of year, perhaps very few travellers come here. Everyone has something to leave behind, something to burn, in a place like this. Perhaps people do not greet people out here. Not in the wintertime. The other shops in the compound look shut. We are miles from any town now. Driving down between half-built bungalows and yards of breeze blocks and sand piles, there’s a sense of collapse.
In the corner of the dining room, there’s an archway into next door’s leisure arcade. The lights are off. I can see a rust-coloured stain on the ceiling tiles, some are missing, showing a dark void where I imagine pipes and cables are fastened. I realise I am checking the change in my pocket and take my hand out and stare at it.
Next to the glass doorway, in a swirling Artex alcove, there is a giant turtle play car with an enormous grin. The plastic has paled and whitened and, next to it, there’s a blue paddling pool filled with yellow balls with the legs of some discarded animals poking through. A sign says ‘Play Area’. I look back at the wall clock.
Music comes on and Esther sits up sharply. It’s the Bay City Rollers. Who plays the Bay City Rollers anymore? I turn and look at Esther. She raises her eyes the way she does and I almost smile back. Finn flicks the salt away, slaps his toy down and looks up, his eyes lift slowly upward into his skull and he opens his mouth like some raw ape.
The man walks in. ‘The fryers are off,’ he says.
‘Is there anything hot?’ I ask.
‘Jean, can you come through here and get these fryers started?’ the man yells, he lowers his voice and wipes the hair out of his eyes, then rubs his hands on his thighs. ‘I can sort some nuggets or something. The fryers will take ten minutes, I reckon. Do you want fish?’
‘Do you have rock?’ Esther shouts over.
‘We don’t got rock or eel in yet. The boys’ll be bringing some later, though it’s getting late,’ says the man.
‘You ain’t got rock?’ repeats Esther. ‘You got a cod back there, maybe?’
‘I can do cod,’ says the man. ‘I got the fishcakes and the nuggets.’
As they talk, the women, Jean, comes through. She looks like an Elvis impersonator and I stare at the shoelace tie she is wearing and the parade of badges on her black frilled shirt. Like the man, she has dyed black hair and looks out at us, taking us in, one by one. ‘Do they want fish?’
‘I’m just asking them,’ says the man.
‘I’ll have the cod, I guess,’ I say. ‘Esther, do you want the cod?’
‘I want the rock,’ she says.
‘We don’t got the rock yet,’ repeats the man, staring at me. ‘I can do sausages, too.’
‘I want haddock,’ Finn says. ‘And chips. And tomato sauce’ He throws his arms on the table, lays down his head and stares sideways at the flayed toy.
‘Fryers will take ten,’ says the woman. ‘You from here?’ she asks. She’s knows we’re not but it’s the opening we all need. Finn’s mouth is opening and closing, but no sound comes out.