The rope binding Mark to Brighton Pier was rough and raw against his wrists. Rust, iron, and dirt scraped his skin. The smell of salt filled his nostrils; the sea breeze ruffled the hairs on his chest. Mark’s eyelids flickered. His toes curled as the cold waves lapped his feet.
he looked down, fearing the worst. Thank god. They’d not removed his boxer
shorts but he was still shirtless, shoeless and skint. And there, dangling from
a rusting pipe, glinting in the morning sun was his scissors; silver-smooth
The seagulls squawked in mockery. The wind whispered ‘give up, give up.’ And then, drifting across the wind, the waves, the wash of water over rock, Mark heard a whistle. A cheerful call of owner to dog. Mark squirmed as a soft wet nose nudged his boxer shorts.
“Help!” Mark croaked, his voice raw from cigarettes and alcohol. The owner hurried over. The man had a weathered face wrinkled as old shoe leather. His deep set eyes glistened like wet pebbles.
“Lovely outfit,” he laughed as he approached.
Mark flushed. He nodded at the scissors.
The man cradled the scissors in his palm. “Nice blades,” he said in the tone of one who owns little.
“Tools of the trade,” replied Mark. “I’m a hairdresser,” he added. The man nodded and cut the rope. Mark rubbed his wrists.
“Thanks mate, if I can do anything for you, just say.” The man whistled to his dog and held out his hand.
“The name’s Brian. You can give me a haircut.”
Mark glanced at Brian’s matted hair. It was what they’d call in the salon ‘a challenging cut’. He bit his lip. Brian looked at Mark’s feet. White as ice cream, they were turning blue with each wash of water.
“I’ll give you sandals.” From within his cavernous coat, Brian pulled a pair of plastic slip–ons, old and crumbling but still protection from the stony beach.
“Alright,” Mark said, “you’re on.”
It was perfect bank holiday weather. A warm day with a soft wind. The sea was calm, smooth as a newly laid sheet. Mist rolled across the water, shrouding west pier in a cotton wool cloak. The clock on Palace pier read . The stalls were shut, the holidaymakers still sleeping, only one gate was unlocked. Brian grabbed a box and sat facing West Pier, his plimsolls resting against the railings. His view; Portslade promenade properties and plenty of pebbles. Mark focused on his task.
The hair was thick, rough and brown. Dry and split at the ends, dank and greasy at the roots. Tangled like seaweed, salty as the sea and slippery as fish. With finger and thumb curled round the scissors' handles Mark flicked frantically at the messy mop; snipping, clipping, cutting, trimming, sculpting a hairstyle from a matted mess.
“You from round here?” Brian asked.
“Nah, on a stag night, wedding’s tomorrow.”
“That explains it.” Brian grinned, Mark cut faster.
“What about you?”
Brian squinted at Mark, eyed his scissors, then gazed out to sea.
“All over, mate. I’m a traveller. Moving
from job to job.
Mark paused. The scissors hovered over Brian’s head. Brian looked at him, their eyes met. Mark opened his mouth to speak.
“I live on the road cause I like it.” Brian got in there first.
“But what about water, electricity?”
Brian smiled. “Solar panels, taps in garages and parks. You can live the simple life easy, it’s the government that makes it difficult.”
Mark stared out to sea. Living on a vehicle? He’d never thought of it. He grinned.
“Good on you mate.” Mark resumed cutting.
“Nice one,” exclaimed Brian as he examined his reflection in a window. He patted his head. Mark sighed. It wasn’t exactly what he’d call a professional job but unwashed hair, no styling products, no comb and no brush weren’t exactly going to produce a competition winner.
“Pop in for a brew later, if you like. Mine’s the green van, parked by Duke’s Mound.” Brian ambled off.
Mark’s stomach was also waking up. Onions from last night’s burger repeated on him. His stomach somersaulted; he belched and felt nauseous. He needed food and fast. Cars whizzed by as he stood at the traffic lights. The red man turned to green. A transit van pulled up. The sliding door wrenched back and a young woman jumped out. She gave Mark a startled look.
He knew she wasn’t English. Her olive skin, dark curly hair, mismatched clothes might have given it away but there was no mistaking the guttural, spat spoken words of abuse of another tongue. Her words bounced off the retreating van.
“Hey, you ok?” Mark rested a hand on her shoulder, she shook it off.
“They, what you call them, bastards. I working and they do nothing but drink.”
Mark shook his head. The woman thrust her hand in her pocket and swore again.
“Ei, ei, ei, They have my keys. How I get into work?”
No time to think, Mark sprinted to the van trapped in traffic. He knocked on the side panel. A sallow face peered out.
“Your friend, her keys,” he panted. The man glanced behind him, unwound the window, tossed out the keys and sped off as the traffic hooted.
“Oh, thank you, I can’t run so fast.”
Mark smiled, pulling her out the way of oncoming cars. He introduced himself.
“My name Natalia,” she replied. “I
Natalia eyebrows almost met.
“An English tradition. Men to be married are humiliated.” Mark explained. Natalia grinned, her eyes taking in his naked chest.
“So, you have nothing?”
Natalia touched his arm. “Then I must buy you breakfast, for you helped me out.”
Mark shook his head but Natalia pulled him into a café. He tried to leave but the smell of sausage, bacon and egg had his mouth watering and his knees weak. Mark sunk into a chair. Natalia smiled. By the time he was chasing the last beans around his plate he’d told her the entire story.
“So, what you going to do?” She asked, curling a strand of hair around her finger.
“Tout for business on the beach. Bank holiday special, cheap hair cuts whilst you wait.”
Natalia grinned. Mark thought of shells washed white by waves when he saw her teeth. She laughed as hair fell over her face. He wanted to push it back but she slipped the rebellious strands beneath a clip. Her face, serious again.
“I here three years and still the same job.” She pulled at her nails. “Summer is fun but the rest of the year is, how you say it, bleak.”
Mark drained his cup. The mug left a brown circular stain on the tablecloth. He looked at his empty plate. If he charged five pounds he’d need fourteen customers to make his train fare. That’d take at least seven hours. He’d best get going.
“Natalia, you’re a star, but I should go.”
Her brown eyes met his. Mark’s heart rippled like the sea, wave after wave after wave.
“Say goodbye before you go. I work on the ghost train.”
Mark nodded, pecked her on the cheek and rushed out. He felt queasy. It must be the breakfast. Too much oil.
Luck was on his side. Mark found fifty pence on the pavement, scavenged a piece of cardboard from Harry Ramsden’s dustbin and borrowed a marker pen from a doughnut seller. Armed with a cheap comb, his scissors and a neatly written sign, he sat on the pebbles and waited. The sun was hot. A tidal wave of holidaymakers burst from the
Mark’s first customer was a single mother. Down from Croydon for the day. Grasping a child in each hand, she plonked herself down.
“A trim please, love.” His scissors glittered in the sun. Mark turned wisps into waves and straggle into style.
“Oooh, that’s lovely,” she glowed as she gazed in her compact. “Will you do my girls too?” The eight year old grumbled and the six year old bawled throughout, but Mark didn’t mind, he was fifteen quid up and it was only .
Then along came a local. A bus driver early for his shift. His starched white shirt contrasting sharply with his black skin. The maroon tie blowed in the breeze.
“Make it quick and I’ll have a short back and sides.” He pulled out a hanky, laid it on the beach and sat down.
“No problem,” Mark replied.
“Not from here, are you?” said the bus driver, hearing Mark’s accent. Mark related his story for the third time that day.
“Stag night, eh? Mine was just as wild. Most fun marriage ever brought me, I tell you that. But then I married a woman I didn’t love, not like you, eh?”
Mark’s eyes drifted from the scissors to the sea. A man splashed his girlfriend with water. They laughed, wrapped their arms around each other and kissed. Mark sighed. The sun was burning his chest, he shifted into his customer’s shadow.
“It’s alright,” said Mark, fingers flexing as he cut faster.
“Not as nice as here though.”
Mark watched a pretty girl lick an ice cream. Melting white and sticky down the wafer. The girl laughed and licked her hand. Her friend sucked hers through the bottom of the cone. They had ninety-nines with big fat flakes perched precariously on top. Mark licked his lips.
“There you go.” Mark brushed shorn black curls from the man’s shoulders.
“Cheers. If you get on my bus, I won’t ask for your fare.”
“Thanks,” Mark replied. Southerners
were friendlier than he’d been told. Or maybe it was
The next hour was no holiday for Mark. A pensioner wanted a trim, a sunglasses seller wanted a David Beckham and two women lovers wanted stars cut into their shaved heads. By lunchtime Mark had made forty quid. It was, he decided, time for a break.
The pier was packed. Couples, young and old, walked hand in hand. Pensioners soaked up the sun on benches, kids pestered parents, queues for doughnuts, chips and crepes snaked the wooden boards. Mark’s mouth watered. His head ached, the hangover hitting home as arcade games pinged, pop songs blasted and girls on fairground rides screamed. He pushed through the crowds to the ghost train.
The sallow skull, overhanging the entrance, looked more sad than scary in the sun. Natalia was helping customers onto the train. Mark tapped her shoulder.
“Can I return the favour and buy you lunch?”
Her hair brushed his cheek as she turned. It smelt of popcorn and caramelised nuts. She grinned.
“Sure, meet you in five minutes, there.” She pointed to the pub at the end of the pier.
The tavern was dark after the bright afternoon sunshine. Smoke wreathed like seaweed in the air. Couples chatted, friends confided and young men laughed. Mark had a pint, Natalia had a glass of wine. They ate fish and chips. He watched her lick the salt off her fingers.
“You love your fiancee?” Natalia asked.
“Course,” Mark stared at the remnants of batter on his plate. Jenny would never eat fish and chips with him in a smoky pub.
“You happy?” Natalia asked, gulping her wine, her eyes flitting from the table to his face.
Mark swigged his pint. The hair of the dog was working. He was beginning to feel human again. He was content sitting here, but she didn’t mean that. Thinking of tomorrow his throat constricted, his chest clenched, his heartbeat raced. He was like driftwood on a tide, swept along by Jenny’s excitement. The rhythm of her requests like waves washing over him. The strength of her demands breaking down his sea wall. Mark stared at the water pockmarked by the wind, whipped into shape by a stronger force. He swallowed. Cold feet. That’s all it was.
Natalia was looking at him. Mark fiddled with his plate. He’d spent fifteen pounds on lunch, nearly half his takings, on a woman he’d met that morning. If any of his friends saw him they’d say he didn’t look like a man who wanted to get married. Mark stood up quickly. Natalia raised her eyebrows.
“Better go.” Mark left the pub, his heart pounding.
He mingled in the crowd, searching lover’s faces as if they could tell him what to do. The beach was busy. He touted for customers and soon had a waiting list. He cut the hair of a young woman, down on a hen weekend, Joshua, a media exec taking a stroll, Pearl, a life guard on her lunch break, Steve, a body builder who tried to chat him up and Paul, a truck driver who told him of all the golfing trophies he’d won. But Mark wasn’t listening. His head whirled. Too little sleep, he thought. Time for a break.
He wandered down the front past the stalls selling rock, postcards and souvenirs. A parade of plastic, a paradise of kitsch. At Volks station he watched passengers climb onto the train and then followed it as it puttered towards the marina. The road emptied of people and filled with parked coaches. Skid marks made by boy racers smudged the tarmac, the tamarisk bushes rustled on Dukes Mound; men waited, as if for a bus, except all stood alone, like sentries guarding grass. Nudists bared their buff. At the far end of
“Was that you?” Mark asked, his eyes opening wide.
Brian nodded and waved him in.
“I’m a trained musician.” He strummed the strings before laying down his instrument and filling the kettle.
The van was cosy but not big. The bed doubled as a sofa. A two-plate stove and gas fridge was a kitchen and a large bucket was a bath. Four guitars hung from the ceiling. European postcards decorated the walls. Pans swayed on hooks, a broom was clipped to the wall, storage jars filled with pasta, rice, lentils, couscous and beans were squeezed into a giant spice rack. The van smelt of rolling tobacco and incense. It made Mark think of a Wendy house for adults. Brian handed him a mug of tea.
Mark sat on the step and told Brian about Natalia, he didn’t know why, he just did.
“The Slovenian that works on the ghost train?” Brian asked.
“Yeah, you know her?”
“Sure do, she’s an amazing dancer.”
“What? She never said.” What else had she not told him? But then why should she? It wasn’t like they were old friends.
“Artists, writers, musicians,
they’re ten a penny in this town. Go to
“I just thought it was an ordinary seaside town.” Mark slurped his tea.
Mark gazed at the waves reflecting the clear blue sky.
“Why do you like it here?” Mark asked.
“Cause wherever I go, whoever I eavesdrop on, the conversation’s always interesting.”
“So won’t you move on?”
“Course, but don’t you think this is a nice spot?”
Mark looked out Brian’s window, cut into the vehicle’s side panel. The sea shimmered in the sun. Laughter carried on the wind and the smell of salt washed over him. Brian was right, it was a great place to live, even in a van.
Mark glanced at his watch, it was . He’d have to catch the train to make his connection. He still had money to make. Reluctantly, he left. It was harder now as people were homeward bound but he persuaded a dad to let him cut his kids’ hair. Then he trimmed Rose, a dinner lady who was a ballroom dancer in her spare time and George, a homeless man in his fifties. Mark didn’t like to ask for payment but George repaid him in poetry with a sonnet so beautiful Mark’s eyes welled with tears. His final customer was a marketing manager and linguist enthusiast who thanked Mark in French, German, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Japanese.
The sun was melting into the sea by the time Mark had finished. Coloured candyfloss clouds floated in the firmament, the sea reflecting their pastel shades. The sky went from blue to pink to orange to grey. Lights lit up the pier like a golden necklace thrown out to sea. Mark laid back on the beach and gazed at the stars, listening to the waves wash the stones, the surf frothing at his feet. He closed his eyes and saw Natalia. His fingers curled round the seventy pounds in his pocket. Enough for the train fare home. His hand clenched, the paper crunched, he sighed.
Jumping up, he took a deep breath and filled his lungs with sea air. Running as if in a race, he headed towards the pier. His heart beating hard against his ribs. The wooden boards clattered beneath his feet, tourists frowned as he pushed past. He stopped at the ghost train, his chest rising and falling like a rollercoaster, his breath caught in his throat. There she stood, her brown curls framing her face, grinning at a kid who’d paid his token. Mark wanted to kiss her right there, right then. She looked up. A smile spread across her face.
Mark shook his head. She raised her eyebrows.
“Fancy a slap up dinner?” Mark asked waving his wad of cash.
“Never been so sure in my life.”