When it’s rained this hard, for this long, I wonder if it might just all collapse into the sea. Everything is so swollen and soft and I find myself doubting the resilience of wood in the wind and whipped-up brine. When you see what the elements do to the metal – bleeding its rust down paintwork, lifting it into flakes and loosening its fixings, you have to wonder at the survival of the structure. I think of gales like the one that ripped the Chain Pier to pieces.
But I have thrown in my lot with her. If the sea takes her rusty old legs out from under her one day then we’ll go down together. And I don’t think there’s any way I’d rather go. Bladderwrack in my hair, mermaids’ purses caught in my curled fingers, a dogfish in my ribcage. Dismantled, bit by bit, among the wreckage, and dispersed across the beaches of Brighton. I’d vote for that end if you could choose.
I said that to Vernon the other day. He looked at me askance.
‘Have you seen a man drown?’
He was tightening the screws on the base of Dolphin Number Five. She’s lilac. The game is a rainbow race of dolphins who leap, rather jerkily, along the track in response to balls rolled down holes by punters. It’s been here longer than me and I’ve been here longer than anyone – except Vernon, of course.
‘There we are, Johnny, that’ll last you a month or two.’
He’s the only one who calls me Johnny. It was what alerted me, when we met.
The rain is coming from the West so we can stand in the open doorway at the back of the booth and smoke without getting wet. The speckled surface of the rocking water is entirely opaque – green marble.
‘Did I ever tell you, Johnny, about Margaritte from the Grand?’
‘It was the summer of ‘99 and I’d only just started here, touching up paintwork as and when…’
I think Vernon has a story for just about every summer. And some for the winters too – long days like this one when he was re-plastering in the bar while the landlord’s wife was doing a stock-take… And then there’s people over the side – suicides or drunken, London trippers with no sense of how far it really was to the shore with the water below 10 degrees and the tide against you.
I listen to the whole tale of Margaritte. It ends in a pub in Peckham, in October, where Vernon acquires a bloody nose and a split lip from the fist of Margaritte’s burly sister.
‘How old were you, Vernon?’
‘In ’99? I was twenty three, Johnny.’
Vernon disappears for a while then and I listen to music on my phone until midday. There’s no chance of punters. There are always a handful of people scuttling up and down the pier, no matter what the weather, but they won’t stop to sit on a puddled stool and play my game today. I’m keeping an eye on the coconuts but it’s the same story over there too. I’m not cold though. I wear lots of layers, fingerless gloves, and I stay dry. The young things who work the summers are hopeless. I think they imagine we’re in Florida – strutting about in their t-shirts.
‘Where’s your fleece, Milena?’
‘I thought today is warm, Jean!’
So I keep a selection of spare clothes in my cupboard. I can always find something for a chilly young person. They think I’m their mum, I reckon. That was a shock when I first realised it but I don’t mind now. I listen to heartbreak and regret and so much homesickness. These days they’re from all over.
But Vernon says they always were – the people in Brighton. The day he told me about Trudie from Strasbourg, he cried. I watched the tears roll slowly and sit in the upward curve of his moustache. He didn’t touch them. She went home in 1932 and he never saw her again.
‘Johnny, she was the finest woman I was ever with.’
He was in his fifties by then. I think that’s where he is now – grey at his temples but still quite strong. He lifts tool boxes I struggle with. He thinks nothing of hopping over the rail and clambering down to the pier’s struts and platforms underneath the walkway. I watch his leather boots balancing on the strips of metal. I wonder what would happen if he fell. Did he fall before? Is that what happened? Is it he who was the drowning man? Or did he breathe his last in some nursing home in Hove? I don’t ask. It seems rude.
‘Johnny, good man!’
I’m stirring two mugs of tea. The rain hasn’t stopped all day. I add two sugars into Vernon’s mug. His overcoat smells of wet wool and his nicotine stained fingers are pale with cold.
‘Where’ve you been Vernon?’
‘Oh, loose slat. Top East. But the wind’s picked-up and it took me longer than it should.’
We drink our tea in silence. The light is failing already and the red and yellow bulbs around the rides and stalls are streaking and pulsing – taking the life into the night. I can shut up the booth soon. I think I’ll get chips on the way home. There’s nothing I like on telly tonight. I’ll read.
Vernon is turning a coin on counter-top – something fat and broad as a waggon wheel. I don’t know what it is.
‘Why do the people here call you Jean?’
The adrenalin comes up fast and hard and I look away.
‘They don’t see me as Johnny, Vernon. Only you see me as Johnny.’
He rolls the coin more slowly – back and forth – then he pockets it and takes out his tobacco. I hope that’s it. I’m hot and pink to the roots of my hair. Everything is prickling. There’s sweat like a finger running down between my breasts.
‘Well, it’s plain to me that you’re Johnny.’
‘I know, Vernon. That’s why you’re a great pal to me.’
‘And it’s plain to you that I’m Vernon, isn’t it, Johnny?’
‘It is, Vernon.’
We walk the length of the pier together and at the entrance he holds out his hand.
‘See you tomorrow, Johnny.’