Strangeland anniversary – Revisiting William Boyd’s short story 08 May 2020

It’s eight years since Strangeland came out, and one of the best things about the release for us was that our favourite author William Boyd wrote a short story to accompany the album. William perfectly captured that bittersweet feeling you often get in seaside towns - in one sense you’re at the end of the line with nowhere further to go, but on the other hand as you look out over the sea it somehow feels like there’s a whole world of new horizons and new adventures waiting for you. If you’re interested in reading more of William’s work, this story later appeared in the collection of stories The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth; or for something piano-themed you could try Love Is Blind; or go for Any Human Heart, possibly my favourite book ever!

By William Boyd

Bethany Mellmoth is running into Victoria Station trying not to look too distraught but probably failing, she thinks.  She glances back, wondering if somehow Demerson has managed to follow her but she can see no one in the thinning crowd of hurrying commuters.  Her eyes flick to the departure board looking for destinations.  Trains that are about to depart for distant destinations. She sees: Hastings. Leaving in three minutes.  Battle of Hastings. War. 1066. Arrow in the eye. That’s for me. Buy a ticket on the train.  She runs to the platform.

She had come home, heavy hearted, to prepare for her mother’s hen-party.  Why would a woman of fifty-three want to have a hen-party given that her first marriage (the marriage that produced Bethany) had turned out to be a grievous and miserable train-wreck?  She rang the doorbell and Demerson answered. Demerson, thirty-five, sleek and heavily perfumed in a towelling robe, her soon-to-be new step-father. “Hey, Bethany,” he said. “You mama she out.”

On the train to Hastings Bethany pays for her single to Hastings, end of the line. £32 – fuck.  She has £4 and some change left.  And no mobile phone.  How could she have run out without her phone?  How was she going to function – to live?  Never mind, she says to herself, you’re safe, that’s the main thing. Demerson can’t follow you. He could never know you caught a train to Hastings.

Bethany went to her room and looked at her dresses hanging in the cupboard in her room.  She picked out the red one – the Coco Fennell – and laid it on her bed.  Now she had her own flat she really should clear her stuff out – especially given that Demerson would be living here in future, in the “family home”. She quite liked Demerson – he was friendly, jolly – but she wished her mother wasn’t marrying him. However, she told herself firmly, it wasn’t her life – it was her mother’s.  She had her own road to travel and the nest had to be left once and for all – she was 23 years old, for god’s sake. She had to stop coming back home. Maybe this marriage was a blessing of sorts – it would drive her away – make her truly independent, finally.  She took her clothes off and tried on the red dress. Looked good. Bloody zip. How were you meant to --. Demerson came into the room without knocking. “No worry, Bethany, I zip you. Very beautiful dress. Sexy.”

After Hayward’s Heath, heading south-east, the names become strange, as if she’s entering a foreign country.  This train seems to stop at every station, she thinks. Plumpton, Lewes, Polegate, Pevensey and Westham, Cooden Beach. It’s as if I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and entered this bizarre toytown England, she says to herself. Diddley-dum, diddley-dum.  She rests her forehead on the cold window and looks out at the late afternoon landscape. Trying not to cry.

Demerson zipped her up and before she could say “thank you” he was feeling her breasts, reaching round from behind, pulling her against him. “I real like you, Bethany,” he mumbled in her ear, and kissed her neck.  Bethany thought: this is my soon-to-be step-father. “You beautiful, ver’ hot, Bethany,” he said, nuzzling into her hair as she struggled, shouting his name, saying, “Fuck off, Demerson!”

The train stops again, seemingly having gone only another two hundred yards since the last station. She sees the sign, mistily, through her tears: BEXHILL-ON-SEA.  She thinks at once – I’m getting off here. This is the place for me.  She feels safe, all of a sudden.

In her struggling, Bethany managed to free her right arm and, reflexively, swung her elbow round and thwacked Demerson on the side of his face. He went down in a sudden slump, as if he’d been felled by a gunshot, shouting, cursing loudly.  She stepped back.  He was on his hands and knees, shaking his head.  Her elbow was aching – she must have connected with his temple, she thought, in a momentary flash of rationality. Knock-out blow. She watched him keel over, then right himself. He tried to stand but she was out of the room, slamming the door behind her.  At the bottom of the stairs she realised she had left her handbag, her mobile and her wallet in her room.  She flung open the drawer in the hall table where her mother left money for the cleaning lady. She grabbed some notes, some coins. Hauled her coat on, hearing her door open and Demerson emerge. He was shouting down the stairs, “I get you, Bethany! I find you!”  Then she was gone.  Out of the door, down Hollywood Road, running for the Tube station at Fulham Broadway. Not looking back.

Bethany leaves the station at Bexhill-on-Sea and walks down  Eversley Road, instinctively heading for the coast, the sea.  She passes a phone box and remembers what has happened.  Her mother and her friends are meeting in a karaoke bar in Putney. Drinks, nibbles, songs. She steps into the phone box, dials her mother’s mobile and shells in a precious pound coin. “ This is Alannah Mellmoth. Please leave a message after the tone.”  She thinks fast. “Really, really, sorry Mum, I can’t make it tonight…”  She improvises.  “Sholto’s ill. I have to take him to hospital. I’ll call later. Love you.”  Beep-beep-beep.  Sholto is her oldest friend – he’ll do whatever she tells him, back her to the hilt.  She hangs up. Now’s not the time to tell her mother about her future husband.

As she raced to Fulham Broadway she kept thinking she could hear running steps behind her.  Could Demerson have followed her so quickly?  Surely not.  She paused and looked back – was that him?  She ran into the station and went to the very end of the platform.  No sign.  A train came and she waited until the very last moment, ducking in between the sliding doors as they closed.  No – he must have missed her.

Bethany stands at the end of Albany Road and looks at the De La Warr Pavilion in some amazement. What is this huge extraordinary building doing on this modest sea front?  Like a vast Art-Deco space-ship that has landed – like that film, what’s it called? Alien?  No. Yes, Alien, the first one. She goes inside and finds the ladies lavatory off the lobby.  In a stall she sits down on the toilet and allows tears to flow, silently, her shoulders shaking.  She calms herself.  She’s safe – she doesn’t need to do anything.  Don’t think, girl, don’t think, she says to herself.  Just let life drift by you for an hour or so.  She checks her money. £3.77.  She’s hungry.  She mooches around the lobby for a while and goes into the shop, pretending to look at the postcards and the merchandise.  She picks up a free brochure: “The Official Guide to Bexhill-on-Sea. The Birthplace of British Motor Racing.”  She slips it in her pocket and wanders out onto the promenade.    

Bethany walks up the West Parade, the shingle beach and calm grey sea on her left, the light in the sky beginning to fade as evening comes on.  She imagines her mother in the karaoke bar – she’ll be first up, singing, “I can’t get no -- satisfaction”.  Bethany smiles, despite herself: her mother thinks she’s got a great voice – which she hasn’t –and she always claims that Bethany has inherited her talent as a singer.  When Bethany once told her she was going to join a band as its singer – a techno-folk band, as it happened – she saw the clear green jealousy shine in her mother’s eyes.  She tries to stop thinking about her mother. How is she going to tell her about Demerson?  What’s the best strategy in this situation?  “Mum, by the way, your future husband tried to fuck me”.  Bethany feels her anger mount.  She rubs her bruised elbow. She hopes Demerson’s head is very sore, throbbing, bruised – maybe she’s blackened his eye. Good.  She reaches into her pocket, unthinkingly looking for her pack of cigarettes. Not there. In her handbag in her room.  She needs a cigarette – very badly.

The Sovereign Light Café, it says.  A small wooden boxy caff on the Parade with a few aluminium chairs and tables outside.  Bethany wanders around and peers inside. Wainscotted wooden walls painted a creamy primrose yellow with purple blinds, two or three customers hunched over their cuppas.   She shivers – it’s getting dark and the windows of the Sovereign Light Café glow with unearthly warm light in the advancing gloom.

Demerson never looked at her in that sidelong way – that way men look at you when they think you don’t know what they’re thinking but you do.  There was nothing in his manner towards her that would have made her suspicious or uneasy in his company. A plump, quite good-looking man who had a window-cleaning business – which was how her mother had met him.  He and his team cleaned the windows of the office block where her office was.  Bethany had thought it was just another fling – her mother was attracted to foreign men – but she was wrong, it was more serious this time.  Any nationality would do for her mother – she wasn’t fussy -- as long as the man wasn’t English.  She’d had a Greek boyfriend, a Ghanaian boyfriend, a Croatian boyfriend, two Spanish boyfriends.  Bethany imagined it was her subconscious way of getting back at her English ex-husband – or of eroding her memories of him with all these foreign men, so different.

Bethany wanders round the Sovereign Light Café – maybe that’s the answer – she should call her father, see what he suggests.  But her father is in Los Angeles and she has no mobile phone and £3.77 in her pocket.  She stops by a blackboard and looks at the list of sandwiches on offer. Ham Mustard Tom. Egg Mayo. Brie Cranberry. Cheese. Crab Sticks Mayo.  White or Wholemeal Bread.  She feels the saliva squirt in her mouth and goes inside.

There’s a young guy wiping down the serving area. “We’re closing,” he says, without looking at her. Rude, Bethany thinks. “Cup of tea to go and a Kit-Kat,” she says. Now he looks at her and she can see his interest suddenly quicken.  She realises she must look somewhat exotic in her black coat and her red dress here on the West Parade at Bexhill-on-Sea.  He’s dark, this guy – lean, almost gaunt -- and he looks very tired, his eyes shadowed. He hasn’t shaved for a few days. He serves her the tea and hands her the Kit-Kat with a new friendly smile.  She pays him.  Now she has less than two pounds. “Closing time, gents,” he says to the locals.  He has a slight burr to his voice. Toime.  He’s wearing chef’s checked trousers and clogs with his sweatshirt.  That’s the look, she analyses, that exhausted chef’s look.  Too many drugs, she thinks, as she walks past him, saying, “Night. Bye.”

Bethany sips her hot tea from its Styrofoam cup and walks round the Sovereign Light Café.  The young guy pulls down the blinds and the lights go off.  Round the back there’s a busted aluminium chair by a wheelie bin.  Bethany sits on the chair – rocky, but it holds.  She folds the collar of her coat up and eats her Kit-Kat.  She almost feels normal -- out of the sea breeze the late spring air is mild. She takes a big gulp of hot tea, wanting the throat-burn, the chest-glow.  She would kill for a smoke, she thinks.  She looks out to sea and, at the dark line where the water meets the sky at the horizon, she sees a powerful light flash – miles away.  The back door opens and the chef comes out.  He looks at her.  “What’re you doing there?” he says, locking the door behind him.  He’s wearing a parka with a fur hood, jeans and trainers, changed out of his chef-gear, carrying a plastic bag that no doubt contains his clogs and checked trousers. “No law against sitting in a chair, is there?” Bethany says, with some aggression.  He shrugs and rummages in his pocket, taking out a pack of ten cigarettes. “Can I have one?” Bethany asks. “Please. I’d be really grateful.”  He lights her cigarette and then his own.  “Where you from?” he says.  Bethany decides to tell him.  “I’ve run away from London,” she says. “A man attacked me – and I’m sort of hiding out.”  The chef looks at her closely. “I hate London,” he says, simply, as if that covers every possible eventuality, as if that explains everything.  He leans against the café wall. “Yeah. Worked there for a while,” he smiles at her. “Not my cup of tea, darling. I do like to be beside the seaside, I do.”  The smile makes him look different for a moment, all the weariness gone.  He has white, even teeth – Bethany notes: she likes that in a man.  “This your café?” Bethany asks. “Nah – just on for the day,” he says. “Someone called in sick.  I’m with an agency. Job here – job there. Suits me.”  He frowns as if he’s thinking of something.  “Wouldn’t mind owning one of these caffs, though,” he says.  “Make a fortune in the summer. Laze around all winter.  Good life.”  Bethany thinks: he’s right – your life would be very simple.  Here on the front at Bexhill-on-Sea, working hard half the year, travelling the other, doing the things you wanted to do knowing you would be coming back, money to be earned, security… “What’s your name?” she asks. “Carl,” he says.  “Carl what?”  He looks at her, suspiciously.  “Why do you want to know?”  Bethany stubs out her cigarette under her shoe. “I like to know people’s full names,” she says. “It differentiates them.” “Carl Trueman,” he says, with a little cough.  Bethany Trueman, Bethany thinks and is immediately angry with herself – she has to stop doing this, it’s ridiculous.  “Bethany Mellmoth,” she says.  Carl Trueman holds his hand out and they shake hands – she finds this formal gesture oddly reassuring.  “Well, I got to be going,” he says. “Got an early shift. Cheers.”  He walks two steps then spins round.  “You going to stay here all night?”  “Maybe,” Bethany says.  He shrugs off his parka and hands it to her.  “You’ll need this, then.”  Bethany stands there surprised. “Two fags left in the pack. Bring it to me in the morning.  Seafront Brasserie on the De La Warr Parade.”  He points. “About a mile down there. I’ll make you some breakfast.”  Bethany doesn’t know what to say as she takes his parka.  “Have you got a phone?” she asks. “I just need to send one text.”  He hands her his phone and she texts her mother:  DONT MARRY DEMERSON. DANGEROUS. I WILL EXPLAIN. BETHANY XXX.  She hands Carl his phone back.  “See you tomorrow,” she says.  “Thanks.”  He walks away. “Keep warm, Bethany,” he says, over his shoulder.  As he walks away Bethany sees the light flash out at sea.  “What’s that flash out on the horizon?” she calls after him.  “That’s the Sovereign Light,” he says. “Massive lighthouse platform. That’s how the café got its name.”

Bethany is surprisingly warm in Carl Trueman’s parka with the hood up.  She wedges the chair against the wheelie bin so she can rest her head against it and hugs her knees to her body.  The fur fringe of the hood frames the dark patch of sea and sky that contains the Sovereign Light and she counts its steady flashes, stopping after a hundred, trying to remember the name of that book where there was a light – a green light, she recalls – that has some heavy symbolism attached to it. Hope – symbol of hope.  Perhaps the Sovereign Light could be her symbol of hope, she thinks idly, deciding to stay awake until dawn, reaching into the pocket to fish out one of Carl’s remaining two cigarettes.  Then she might look as tired as he does.

Bethany wakes at dawn to the sound of a dog yapping. She stirs, stiff, and realises one hand has gone to sleep.  She massages the blood back into it, stands and runs on the spot for a while, realising she needs a pee very badly.  There’s a man on the beach with a small dog and a metal detector, waving it slowly over the pebbles, to and fro. “Morning!” he shouts at her.  “Morning,” she calls back, unreflectingly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to spend the night sleeping on an aluminium chair in a borrowed parka outside a café on the West Parade in Bexhill-on-Sea.  Yes, she thinks, and heads off east, down the promenade, in the direction of the Seafront Brasserie where Carl will be serving up the first of the days’ breakfasts.  She would kill for some bacon and eggs.  Carl Trueman.  Well named, she thinks – like the Sovereign Light Café.  She walks on, more briskly now, the silver sea on her right, the first rays of the morning sun striking the perfect hemispherical curves of the De La Warr Pavilion’s glassed-in staircase, setting star-spangles and flare-dazzles dancing in her eyes, and for some reason she feels oddly sure that all will be fine, now – now that she’s here in Bexhill-on-Sea, Birthplace of British Motor Racing, heading for a breakfast to be served by her new friend Carl Trueman -- and that all her problems will be solved, one way or another, eventually.

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