Back in the day, the Regal Cinema at Claysea had been the entertainment hub of this stretch of the coast. Now it was a bog-standard multiplex with three tiny screens and a vending counter selling overpriced Pepsi and undercooked popcorn. The aroma of the latter at least made a change from the usual reek of shellfish that permeated the promenade ten months of the year. In July and August, the town smelled of sweaty holidaymakers and cooking oil. But it wasn't July or August now.
Connor was queuing with his mate Kane for screen three. The Regal - oddly named as not even a duke or earl had ever been there, let alone actual royalty - had a programming policy that had been set at about the same time as the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Screen one was for rom-coms, a dating delight accompanied by chocolate and aphrodisiac ice cream. Screen two was for cartoons and kids' films. In the third choice, one could catch the new Tom Cruise, the latest Will Smith or a beat 'em up and blow 'em up with Bruce Willis.
"Cinematic segregation, in operation," Kane opined in a faux West Indian accent that proved he'd never been west of Wales.
Tonight's offering was unusual in not being a star vehicle, but otherwise fulfilled the expected criteria. "Attack of the Mermen", Certificate 15, turned out at 10.45pm. All the local pubs were now closed but Connor had a couple of cans concealed in his jacket. The bench outside the bus terminus was dry if a little windswept.
"Wow," said Kane, "that was excellent. Mermaids, mer people are going to be the new big thing. Taking over from vampires."
"And zombies," Connor added. "You know what; I'd even go and see that flick again. Maybe we'll sneak in the back route tomorrow night."
"Or I'll get it on a DVD at that pub in Heath." He sipped his warm lager, belched long and low, rose and strolled over to the redbrick wall to urinate.
"The best bit," Connor recalled, "was when the mermen attacked that group of surfers." He closed his eyes and conjured the images of overturned surfboards, ripped protective clothing, rich students stabbed with shell knives. The sea was boiling red and white.
"Yeah," Kane agreed, wandering back to the bench. "Just like 'Jaws', in a way. Hey, wouldn't it be cool if a load of mermen attacked those poseurs down the coast at Southcliff?"
"My mum calls them rubber clubbers. She says it's not like actual swimming, they don't even get properly wet."
"They got properly done in that movie, though, Con… Hey, I'm heading off home now. Laters."
There were no new jobs on offer at the Jobcentre. His attempt to sell an unwanted pair of classic Reeboks on eBay (wrong size, never worn) had yielded no offers. The usual round of small businesses politely declined him face to face, with the occasional promise of an opportunity come the high season and the influx of holidaymakers. But that was months away.
Connor sat on the sea wall watching the grey waves and the fast clouds concoct typical seaside weather - dull, windy and wet. There was nobody swimming today. That had once been his hobby - especially when he was rebuilding his strength after the cycling accident at age fourteen. Luckily, he had been hit by a family hatchback rather than a 4x4. For a while he had more pins in his smashed legs than there had been rivets in the "Titanic". The pins had gone; the low-level ache mostly remained.
He wondered again whether his brief spell at Finch's Repair Shop would come to be the defining moment of his short life. It had been good money and had enabled him to secure a rented flat and a credit card. When the business went belly up as the latest global recession crashed like a wave along the coast, he'd carried on regardless for a while. Now his Mastercard was almost maxed out, his rent was overdue and the briefly bright future once again looked bleak. He could always move back in with his parents but they were living on state handouts, too, and his much younger sister was unlikely to agree to return to the box room. No, for now, he would continue to live as if money was no great concern until his credit was cut off for good.
Or so he said. The local Iceland offered cheap ready meals and if you turned up twenty minutes before closing time you could usually persuade the staff to shave an extra 50p or so off most of the 'Use By' items.
You had to live for the moment, otherwise what was the point of being in your early twenties? At any moment you could die in a freak body-boarding accident, have your neck broken in a rugby scrum, or get stabbed with a razor shell by marauding mermen.
He never surfed, had long since given up sports and undersea people were just a story. Talking of which, here was Kane outside his flat with a grubby carrier bag and an annoyed grimace.
"Where you been, Con? I been waiting ages. I got that film on pirate DVD from a Korean bloke down in Tappleton."
"Great. We'll have to watch it on the laptop, though; my TV has broken and I ain't got no licence anyway."
To his surprise, Connor was even more impressed with 'Attack of the Mermen' on a second viewing. The creepy moments were even creepier, the fight scenes cleverly choreographed and the nudity at the end was just made for the pause button.
Jack, the young hero of the film, has killed the mer king and sent their defeated army packing, although there are enough survivors to leave open the possibility of a sequel. He goes back to his beachfront house to have a celebratory shag with his girlfriend. She removes her striated white bra with a jiggle for the cameras then slides under the duvet. There is a brief glimpse of the star's firm, lightly tattooed buttocks. He pulls back the covers to reveal that Chloe's lower half… is a green tail.
"Top tit shot," Kane commented. "Let's run that bit again."
"The bathroom's that way," Connor answered. "Don't use up all my bog roll with your wanking."
He sipped some weak coffee whilst his friend disappeared. He wondered if there was some sort of racial allegory here like there probably was with "King Kong". There had been a whole strand running throughout the story about how the mermen hate it that mermaids keep sleeping with landlubbers. Their response at one point had been to keep their womenfolk chained up with old reclaimed anchor chains. Had the whole invasion business been simply some sort of marine revenge on sex-crazed homo sapiens?
It wasn't the sort of thing he could discuss with Kane. His mate had a heart of gold - and a decent paying job just outside Southcliff - but tended to take things at face value.
The girl in the film had a pretty face and flowing blonde hair just like traditional expectations. Her breasts looked natural. What happened down below, though, still remained a mystery.
Connor felt strangely restless after Kane had left, despite the lateness of the hour. Where his flat's windows didn't quite fit, a slight breeze crept its airy fingers through the crevices. The sea sounded wild tonight and could be heard crashing against the grey stone promenade even from this distance. What had upset the water so? The moon tugging against its loyalty, her silver tongue silently suggesting: If you love me, you must follow me. Or something more sinister?
He put on an old pair of trainers and a light nylon jacket, wandered into the town centre. Few others were out taking a late night stroll. The streetlights seemed somewhat muted, casting faces, figures and shop fronts in a greenish glow. Maybe the council was trying to save even more money on their low-energy bulbs.
Connor tried his card in the HSBC slot next to the shoe shop and was surprised to yet again be offered the option of ready cash. He keyed in his pin number, eyes automatically away from the screen and checking the scene behind him. There was no one about but he still had the feeling of being observed. Delayed paranoia, probably from a little temporary job he'd taken two weeks ago, cash in hand. A day's labour. Peanuts but no doubt the Inland Revenue would still like to have had their slice.
Could you slice a peanut? he wondered as he walked rather too briskly back home.
The DVD in its generic case with a poorly photocopied cover caught his attention as he re-entered his bedsit. He could watch it again if he chose; he had nothing to get up for.
It had been raining for three days, an invasion by the sea more subtle than a tidal wave or tsunami. This was the sort of weather the holidaymakers hated and when a low settled in like this during the summer all you could hear in the shops was, "We should have gone to Alicante." No one cared what the locals felt, they had grown up with it, they could cope, and they were probably part marine anyway.
Connor watched the DVD over and over and the dialogue seemed to change; the setting, too. The original had clearly been coastal America - his geography wasn't good enough to know whether west like California or east like Maine. But now - hey, the place looked like Southcliff even down to the dilapidated beach huts behind which the mer people hid at twilight. The accents had changed too from an American drawl to decidedly British, even a slight Welsh inflection.
A pile of mail landed on his doorstep. It was wet like a treasure map from a sunken galleon. Mobile phone offers, a flyer for a church jumble sale and a sodden heating bill. He dried this latter out carefully atop the one working radiator.
He left the flat with his coat buttoned to the top. His legs ached from recent lack of activity. He could never get it right - how much to exercise without exacerbating the old problem. At least it was only drizzling now and the walk to the "Sea Dragon" public house was mostly downhill. At the entrance a gaggle of smokers congregated under what little shelter the doorway offered. He didn't recognise any of them yet they seemed familiar enough with local customs. Which were - Always be as unhelpful as you dared.
Inside the pub he spied Abby, a girl he'd had a brief relationship with when they were at school and she was just on the cusp of womanhood, sixteen and knowing, certainly knowing more than he did at eighteen. He nodded in her direction. She gave a mute signal in reply but turned her dark eyes away as her companion returned from the gents. Connor recognised the guy as a beefy sort who'd been in the year above and was now a police officer. The dick's voice penetrated the susurrus of the pub, the usual jobsworth rant about scroungers and "Jobseeker scum". Connor nursed his gradually warming bottle of Belgian beer. At last Kyle was there at his elbow. No offer of a second round. Instead -
"Listen, Connor, I can get you onto this night fishing trip tomorrow. There's a bit of cash in it and you can probably take a fillet or two home for your breakfast."
"I'm not that skilled an angler, Ky."
"They just need an extra pair of arms to drag in the nets. And no blabbing. This is not part of the EU quota, if you catch my drift."