"Archie isn't religious. He likes to read out loud, he likes people to listen to him reading out loud. He loves an audience...."
fiction by christine tothill
Archie ducks his head as he enters his Chapel. He will prepare for the evening service: he turns the heating on, cuts the bread rolls, and slices the cheese. He opens a bottle of red wine to let it breathe. Archie changes into black cords and a clean black shirt, a white silk scarf hangs around his neck. The small room becomes warm and comfortable and he settles into a deckchair to read his notes for the service.
Outside he hears people talking quietly, waiting to be let in. He hears Emily's high soprano voice, Aida's husky laugh. He listens for a male voice - there isn't one. There never is. Women flock to Archie's Chapel and he likes it that way.
He only knows Emily and Aida by first names. They help him hand the food round, pass the wine glasses and wash them when everyone else has gone. He wonders what Emily and Aida will say about the Chapel. He wants them to be the first to know. Archie, this morning, has been given permission to marry people in his Chapel on the beach. The Register Office agreed.
Archie is a loner and sleeps in his Chapel by night and walks the streets by day. He isn't married, divorced or a widower. He is a single man in his late thirties trying to get by. His grandmother left him her beach hut on the Brighton seafront and he lives in it.
There are no neighbours - not in the winter. He is by himself on the beachfront with only a few vagrants passing on a fine day. They have a camp under the pier and sometimes Archie takes them sausages to cook over their sticks, fish to smoke, wine to drink.
Archie stands and paces up and down the little room - bent over because of his height. He looks at his watch and listens to the voices again. A male voice is there, interrupting, chipping in and out of the conversation. Archie tries to listen but can't quite make out all the words because the waves are colliding with the pebbles only feet away. He hopes the male voice belongs to Sid, one of the vagrants. Sometimes Sid wheedles in when the cheese rolls are being handed out and the wine poured. Archie likes to share, give, be generous.
He turns the key and opens the door.
Archie, good evening, Aida says, pushing past Emily. We have been walking around trying to keep warm. She takes scarves, gloves and a coat off and hangs them on the back of a deckchair and sits down.
Good evening all, Archie says. He stands back to let the few people in. All are banging their hands together and stamping their feet. Sorry to keep you outside, make yourself at home, he says. He hands booklets to the five people and waits for them to settle.
Archie isn't religious. He likes to read out loud, he likes people to listen to him reading out loud. He loves an audience, he wants to be looked at, be admired. And, this is what he does best. He collects people; to listen to him read the bible, listen to his poems. He finds women more attentive, not so argumentative. Until tonight perhaps, he thinks, looking at the stranger in the corner, hugging the electric fan heater. He is a well dressed man and Archie doesn't know him.
Before we start, Aida says. Archie, I would like to introduce you to David Maidment. She leans over and whispers in Archie's ear. He works for a building contractor. They are buying all the beach huts and taking them away. The pier is going to be done up at last. She moves closer to him and her left cheek brushes his as she carries on. The good news is the beach huts are being re-sited up on the Downs. On the racecourse. Isn't that good news?
He smells her clogged talcum powder, her lacquered hair and wants to vomit.