Though it wasn’t warm, the beach was
thronging with half-clad bodies. There was
barely a square-inch to drape our colourful
towels. I felt like an impostor in a packed seal
colony. The water was churning with
holidaymakers. Innumerable youngsters
splashing wildly, older people doggy paddling.
The shingles bit into my soles. I wished it’d
been a sandy beach. I saw some folks with
stripey deck chairs up ahead. This was a
marvellous notion. Uncle and Eddie went to
search for the attendant. Mr Steinberg and
I struggled to secure a space amidst the
crowd. After a time, on a gentle rise of
shingles, William firmly planted his foot.
Then Eddie and Uncle returned, heaving
and puffing, labouring under a heavy burden
of wooden seats. We were all set. We erected
our chairs, stretched out our legs, and turned
our minds to relaxation and lunch.
We set out early, and took a train to the
coast. The weather was dull, overcast. Rain
threatened. No one wanted to put a damper
on our expedition. Mr Steinberg was
particularly jolly. It came to me that he
hadn’t skipped a day off work in years.
It was a laborious journey. We stopped at
every minor halt, every insignificant station.
It was almost noon before we pulled into
the seaside terminus. A haughty guard
punched our tickets. We exited the smoky
building and looked down the steep slope,
straight towards the sea, which was a line
of brilliant blue. Uncle whooped like a thrilled
school boy. There was a shuttle bus available.
We boarded, fell giggling into the rear seats.
The bus passed gaudy souvenir shops touting
bright buckets and spades. Once out on the
promenade, we drove into a tight lay-by,
slap-bang beside the beach.
I got a pay rise. To acknowledge, Mr Steinberg
said, the significant extra graft I was putting in.
True, there were more hours and earlier starts.
But I didn’t feel overwhelmed. The work was
pleasant, the customers were polite, the
money rang up in the till. Mr Steinberg,
I reflected, must be worth a small fortune.
I wondered if Mr Steinberg was putting his
affairs in order. He was thinner. He’d lost
more hair. Sometimes his skull seemed to
peep through, his sunken cheek bones were
alarming. But Mr Steinberg’s spirit was
undimmed. His new friendship with Uncle
bloomed. Mr Steinberg proposed a family
outing. He’d shut up shop. We’d spend
the day sunning ourselves on the coast.
We’d share fish and chips on the shingles,
and paddle out past the line of surf. The sun
would raise red welts on our backs. There’d
be starfish, the smell of seaweed and salt
in the rock pools. It’d be perfect.
I told Eddie it was ludicrous. To think
I had a teenage crush on a much older
man. I put him straight about Mr Steinberg’s
health. Eddie grew serious when he heard
the news. I suspected he was relieved too,
that his girlfriend didn’t harbour any crazy
infatuation. Eddie asked how long Mr
Steinberg had. I explained it was a matter
of months, maybe less. Eddie heaved a sigh.
He apologised for his stupid suspicions.
I reached up, flung my arms around Eddie’s
shoulders, and planted a kiss squarely on
his lips. Our rift was healed.
I hit a rocky patch with Eddie. He became
completely uncommunicative. Eddie was
morose. He wouldn’t even hold my hand.
I wondered what was troubling him so.
I asked after his Father. This only elicited
a prickly grunt. Eddie wasn’t generally prone
to moodiness. I wracked my brains. I couldn’t
remember making a single offensive comment.
Let him have his sulk, I thought. I’d put my
energies into caring for Mr Steinberg.
Suddenly it clicked. Eddie was jealous.
He didn’t like the way I fawned over our
boss. But Eddie still knew nothing about Mr
Steinberg’s cancer. It was time to front up.
Uncle and Mr Steinberg began frequenting
boutique coffee shops. I was surprised they
hadn’t ventured into hard liquor. Uncle, I was
impressed to see, had become a committed
teetotaller. I hoped Uncle wouldn’t fritter away
his inheritance on arabica beans and
extortionate club sandwiches. I was a little
concerned at how much time William was
spending alone. I prayed he wouldn’t burn
the house down when we were gone. Uncle
had foolishly purchased William a gaming
console. William was perpetually glued to its
unsavoury, violent graphics. I could see his
mind becoming addled, even brutalised. He
only spoke in grunts and expletives. At meal
times, his phone buzzed beside his dinner
plate, it was infuriating. If I scolded William,
Uncle merely said, let him be. I didn’t wish
to become a nag, so I bolted my mouth.
Eddie would come around and team up
with William. He seemed to find these games
more fascinating than me.
The sun was sparkling now. Uncle helped
me with the awning. Eddie waited outside,
stamping his cold feet. I went into the back
room and prepared coffee. We all sat in a
huddle, slurping our beverage. Afterwards,
Uncle and Eddie sorted the papers
companionably, while I balanced the till.
It was time to open, and rouse Mr Steinberg.
I unbolted the side door, and sent Uncle up.
He was away for a considerable period.
I served a steady stream of regulars until
nine. The day’s takings boded well. Then
the connecting door opened. I heard fruity
guffaws of laughter. Mr Steinberg and Uncle
had really struck it off. I looked up from my
work, grinning. Now that Uncle was swayed,
I felt I could count Mr Steinberg as family.
I felt compelled to share Mr Steinberg’s story
with Uncle. Uncle was an excellent listener.
He was especially concerned that Mr
Steinberg sought no medical help. Uncle
hated to think the old man might be in
unnecessary pain. He offered to come to
the shop and have a kindly word. I was
surprised at first. All along this had been
my realm. But I could see no harm in
introducing Uncle. His persuasive words,
I felt certain, would carry more weight with
Mr Steinberg. Uncle agreed to rise at dawn,
and accompany me to work. I set my alarm.
It was soon ringing madly. I barely felt I’d
slept. I stumbled blearily to the bathroom.
Uncle was already there, humming happily,
flossing his teeth. I could hardly believe the
profound change in him. After crunching on
a slice of thickly buttered toast, Uncle and I
stepped out into the dark morning, and strode
towards the shop.
New duties fell to me. Mr Steinberg didn’t
feel up to opening the shop. So I came early,
heaved the shutter up and balanced the petty
cash. Things ran like clockwork. I was
effectively the boss. I missed the cuppa Mr
Steinberg had brought me. So I brewed a pot,
and took a steaming mug up to Mr Steinberg’s
apartment. Eddie hadn’t been told. I didn’t
feel at liberty to divulge Mr Steinberg’s
confidences. I was concerned at how sallow
and lethargic my boss had become. But Mr
Steinberg was adamant. He’d see no doctor.
They were the kiss of death. He never
complained of pain. Mr Steinberg was too
noble for theatrical displays. But I knew he
suffered. I didn’t wish him to linger on this
earth, wracked by agony.
Life ticked by. Work was generally cushy.
I’d got the hang of everything now. I had
saved most of my slim earnings. I hadn’t
touched my inheritance, apart from buying
Eddie’s flash watch, which he treated like a
sacred heirloom. I was growing concerned
about Mr Steinberg. His face looked
perpetually drawn. He’d lost weight. He was
never a voluble man, only now he was virtually
mute. I plucked up the courage to ask.
Natalie, he said, his voice laden with pathos,
I am a sick man. The cancer has invaded my
body. I have only a little time now. This was
profoundly shocking. I scrabbled with my
fingers. I didn’t know how to react. Mr
Steinberg’s shoulders began to tremble.
He was crying. This was entirely terrible. I
reached out and took his hand in mine. Mr
Steinberg squeezed my paw so hard I nearly
screamed. I wasn’t able to help myself. I wept
too. I couldn’t bear to think another soul in my
life would be stolen from me.