The North-South Divide

Another country.

He hadn’t told her where they were going, of course, or why they were going there. He hadn’t even been thoughtful enough to mention that she should probably wear more practical shoes than leopard-print spike heels. Heels which now threatened to break off – or break her ankle – with every faltering step she took across the shingle.

It’d be worth it, he’d said. Worth traipsing all the way down to this Godforsaken corner of the Garden of England, worth taking day off work for, even worth the ridiculous kiddy train they’d had to ride for the final leg of the journey. Perched in miniature carriages, whooshing along behind people’s gardens, full of swingsets and laundry-lines.

The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. It didn’t even say Dungeness in the name. Why should it? Who in their right mind would want to catch a funfair ride to this blighted beach, all deadwood, cold rolled stones and scrabbling, prehistoric-looking sea lettuce?

But Maxine knew the answer to that. Her dad had been drawn to this place, bundling Maxine, her sister and their mother into the battered family Sierra on seemingly random Sundays before driving determinedly to this desolation at England’s easternmost tip. He’d park up on some nondescript piece of asphalt or other and get out of the car, roll a cigarette and lean back against the bonnet and stare wordlessly across the grey sea in the vague direction of France.

Maxine’s mum had hated it, though, forbidding the kids from getting out of the car until their complaints became utterly unignorable. She’d been living near Whitby when Chernobyl blew its top in ’86, still remembered being told to stay indoors when the wind blew in off the North Sea. She feared Dungeness’ own reactor, its hulking rectangular form blurred by the seafront haze – suspecting waste in the water, fallout on the shore. Even when she relented and let them out of the car, she’d call after them: “Stay on the path! Don’t touch anything!”

Maxine herself was happier at nearby Camber, with its golden sands, or the friendlier resorts of the Thames Estuary. Herne Bay, Broadstairs, even Margate. Her mum, though, would muse wistfully about wilder shores. Robin Hood’s Bay. Bamburgh. Staithes. Those places, she implied, had a kind of gritty authenticity lacking in the groomed Southern seafronts. Max and her sisters quickly learned to mock such sentiments: it’s grim oop North.

Maxine’s dad, meanwhile, had eventually stopped simply gazing across the Channel and crossed it himself, leaving his  erstwhile family to fend for themselves in honest poverty. He’d ultimately made his way all the way south to Marseilles, which was as full of intrigues as any well-trafficked port is. Like the Cinque Ports, where he’d been wheeling and dealing in penny-ante fashion for years, but bigger and rawer. Plenty of opportunities there for a fortune-seeking chancer.

Speaking of which, Phil had stopped and turned. “Get a move on, Max, we’re going to be late,” he yelled, his voice almost lost in the wind. He was far ahead of her, sure-footed in his grubby white trainers.

“Where are we going?” she protested. “I’m bloody freezing and we’ve been walking for miles.”

“Don’t be such a whinger,” he shouted back. “It’s just a bit further. And it’s not that cold.”

“I’m not one of your Northern slappers who goes out in a G-string and stilettos whatever the weather,” she snapped. He shrugged nonchalantly, seemingly accepting this as a back-handed compliment to his Geordie tribe, and continued to march towards the sea.

Maxine considered for a moment. She was slipping ever further behind: Phil was fast becoming a stick-figure on the beach, a narrowing strip of rusty stones and scrubby green vegetation squeezed between smoky clouds and steely water. The power plant skulked far off to her left. The place where the pylons ended. It looked as though they were marching one by one to their deaths. An electrical extermination camp.

Unenthusiastic though she was about Phil’s latest get-rich-quick scheme, she was even less keen on getting lost out here. Struggling to balance, she removed one shoe, then the other. A momentary sting of panic as she remembered her mother’s cautions. But then it was done. The stones were chilly, but thankfully dry, under her bare feet, and she found she could hop over them much more quickly, limited only by the narrowness of her skirt.

She’d dressed to impress, expecting some high-stakes clubland meeting, choosing her accessories and make-up with care. Examining herself in the full-length mirror before leaving the flat, she’d had a sharp spasm of the increasingly familiar feeling that she looked far better than Phil deserved, lumpen in his fleece and tracksuit bottoms.

Not just looked better. She was better. Things just hadn’t been the same since she’d gone to the Med last summer. Two months of sunshine, blue skies, warm water. Tanned, lean men. Cocktails. She’d changed. She’d learnt a few things about what you could make of life, if you tried. She hadn’t wanted to go back to working in the boozer and vegging out in front of the telly. But the alternative was to concede defeat, to join her mother in modest refuge up on the Yorkshire moors.

She was close enough now to see that Phil had pulled out his makeshift map, no more than a creased bit of paper with pencil scribblings on it, evidently drawn according to telephonic instructions. It’d be a wonder if they made itt o wherever they were going. He really was an useless shit, she thought, rage filling her for a moment.

She caught up with him just as he crested a swell of stones: beyond it, the water’s edge; a few feet out, a sharp-nosed boat bobbing with the tide. On the beach, two men, vaguely European looking. One would have been good-looking were it not for his hugely bushy eyebrows. Her first thought was that they must be French, or perhaps Spanish; but  nowadays they were just as likely to be from the Baltic as the Mediterranean.

They were wearing black leather blouson jackets and what looked from a distance like peculiar trousers; but then Maxine realised they were waders. Mostly dry, only their creases slick with water. They’d evidently been waiting for a while. On seeing them, Eyebrows half-turned and tossed a cigarette butt into the water. His movement spoke of efficiency. Perhaps of aggression.

On the back of the speedboat, she could just make out boxes stacked under a tarpaulin, each a bit smaller than a shoebox. “Unstamped fags?” she asked gloomily. A mug’s game, unless you had the balls to bring them in by the lorryload.

So this was how it was going to play out: offering the punters down the pub a packet here, a packet there. A quid or two each time for the savings jar in the hallway, whose contents were as unimpressive today as they’d been the day she’d started it. The day she’d got back from her summer in the sun. Phil helped himself to its contents every time he needed some change for fags, or a pint, or a paper. Or pretty much anything, really.

“Smartphones,” he replied gleefully, and as Maxine looked more closely she could see that what she’d taken for jumbo-sized cartons were, indeed, individual boxes of electronics. “A hundred of them, unlocked and unregistered, work on any network. Even with a pre-paid SIM. That’s ten grand you’re looking at there.”

More like three, thought Maxine. “Phil, how are we going to get them out of here? We can’t just carry them.” The guys on the beach didn’t looked as though they they’d offer sale-or-return.

Phil looked wounded. “Gimme some credit, Maxine. Jez is coming with his van. He’ll be here in a minute. We’re going evens on it.” He shot her a pleading glance, then trotted down the ridge to meet his partners in crime.

Maxine began pacing along the stony ridge: a few feet this way, a few feet the other. It wasn’t just her feet that were freezing now: she wrapped her arms around herself to fend off the cold wind whipping in off the sea. She could taste its saline tang, and perhaps something more. Something metallic. She looked for the power plant, couldn’t see it.

Finally she stopped pacing and looked at the three men. The transaction did not seem to be going well. Picking her way gingerly down the slope, she could hear the Europeans’ raised voices and Phil’s more plaintive, whiny tones. The price had just gone up, she guessed. Useless, useless, she raged internally, marching across the stones, her shoes still in her left hand, and before she knew it she was fumbling in her bag for the gun, pulled it out, pointed it at the trio.

Maxine believed in being prepared. And she’d been particularly careful in her preparations that day.

“Hey!” she shouted.

The men looked at her, stupefied. For a moment, no-one did anything. Then Eyebrows began to advance on her, his palms up and out. He had a grin on his face, the kind of grin she knew from her summer in the sun. She could almost hear the Eurotrash words coming: Hey baby. Be cool. She’d heard it enough times last year when some sleazebag or other had tried it on, overestimating their charms and underestimating her irritation. Until they’d eventually realised she wasn’t just another clueless little English girl. Until they’d realised she could handle herself.

The bark of the gun surprised Maxine only a little, but it startled the hell out of everyone else.

“Maxine! What the fuck, Maxine –”

“Shut up, Phil,” she said, realigning the gun so that it was pointing directly at Eyebrows, rather out to sea. “You. Keys.” Eyebrows nodded, reached slowly into one of his jacket pockets, extracted a bunch of keys and tossed them at her feet with the same efficiency as he’d flicked the cigarette butt.

“All right,” she said, bending sideways to pluck them off the shingle, hooking them awkwardly with the spare fingers of her shoe-holding left hand. “Now fuck off out of here.”

“Maxine,” started Phil. “Now think about this, Max –”

She fired again. This time the bullet whizzed past his ear, rather closer than she’d planned.

He didn’t need telling twice. For a moment, the Europeans looked as though they might still argue the point; then Eyebrows shrugged, and they slouched after Phil’s rapidly disappearing form.

Maxine lowered the gun, suddenly trembling. She had an abrupt urge to throw it away, forced herself to put it back in her bag. She realised she was holding it gingerly.

Fingerprints.

Don’t touch anything.

She wiped the keys on her blouse, gripped them firmly between her teeth, and extended her arms for balance as she picked her way across the last few yards of shingle and waded into the water, finally thankful for the bareness of her legs and the brevity of her skirt.

Out to where the boat bobbed and fretted in the surf. Tossed the spike heels onboard, pulled herself onto its edge and swung herself on-board with practised ease.

A summer in the sun. She’d learnt a few things.

Ignoring the goosebumps on her arms and legs, she pulled up the anchor – just a block of concrete attached to a loop of plastic twine – then dropped herself into the skipper’s leather-lined bucket seat. The correct key was obvious: she fired up the motor. It was surprisingly quiet, but she could feel the engine’s confident vibration through the fibreglass. A smuggler’s boat.

A few seconds to familiarise herself with the controls, then she dropped it into gear, swung the steering yoke, and swept away from the shore, carving a white weal through the grey and poisonous sea.

3 thoughts on “The North-South Divide

  1. This story came to me, somewhat inexplicably, when I was holiday in den Haag in the Netherlands. It had been a bright, sunny and cheerful couple of weeks of vacation, so I’m not quite sure why my mind ended it by gravitating to a dull day in Dungeness. (Romney Marsh is, incidentally, one of my favourite places on Earth: a very British wilderness.)

    At the time, I think I was intending to enter a short story competition for crime writers, but it was obvious that the end product wasn’t really appropriate: more straight-up character study than whodunnit. Having written it, I was a bit of a loss as to what to do with it: it’s not my usual kind of story.

    So when Liars’ League Leeds, the Northern offshoot of the excellent Liars’ League, announced a few weeks later that the theme of its debut event was to be North & South, the serendipity was irresistible. It was duly read by Madeleine Thorne at the event in July 2011.

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