To his left, the sand, brought here from elsewhere to cover the shingles; beyond the sand, the sea, unceasing in its undulation. Wave upon wave, ripples upon ripples. The constant sound of undramatic motion.
To his right, the beach huts. All locked up, this time of day, bar two or three: exceptions. They were modest huts, almost sheds, really, perhaps four feet wide and six feet tall, barely tall enough for a grown man to stand up in. George was no grown man, and at 5’7” he was unlikely to turn into a giant among them. He had a slim and slender stature.
The huts all carried numbers. Here, they were in the low to mid-hundreds. They lined up one by one, not in clusters but in single file segments. Sometimes a dozen, sometimes two. They seemed of an ilk, though occasionally George walked past some newer models, ones with roll-down shutters, or wooden roofs, instead of the black rough material most were covered with. They were not deep, maybe another five or six feet. Inside, there was room to stow away some deckchairs, some wind breaker thing or some chairs and a parasol. Mostly it was too windy for parasols here.
At this time in the early evening, when the sun is beginning its hesitant descent, not over the sea but behind the slightly elevated land, most people have either not been here or they’ve already left. Only now and then do you walk past someone putting away the things they’ve been using during the day, or reading a few more pages in their book, or sitting with two or three friends in chairs outside the open hut, drinking cider.
Many, though by no means all, of the huts have a little gas stove, with only two rings: enough to heat up a kettle or a tin of baked beans. The huts all sit off the ground on stout ledges made of brick, and they are very close to each other, nearly touching, but not quite, unless there’s an actual gap, in which case it’s mostly several huts wide and there for a reason: a public convenience or a small ice cream parlour, or some similar unflattering, utilitarian structure.
Sometimes there is a long gap with no huts for a few dozen or a few hundred yards, and then they start up again. There is nothing strange or exceptional about these beach huts, except perhaps their very existence. It is a little miracle of quaintness in an otherwise strident world. They are so small, these huts, so modest, so impractical, in a way, and they’re not even directly on the beach, they’re on the other side of the promenade: everyone can partake of them, the people sitting outside them watching the people go by, and the people going by watching the people sitting outside them. They are not private. There is nothing exclusive about them, let alone glamorous. Some have whimsical, punning names: “Mad Hutter,” for instance, or “Seas the Day.” Inside the odd one, with its wooden shutters open, you spot little signs or postcards that say things like: “O I do like to be beside the seaside,” or “A day at the sea is good for the soul.”
They can’t be argued with, these huts, they are part of the seafront, like seagulls and groins and the piers and the surfers and the signs listing all the things you can’t do, now that you’re here.
George knew these huts, of course, he’d walked past them innumerable times: he was hardly surprised by their presence. Nor was he annoyed. Nor was he thrilled. Or even delighted. Yet into his mind slipped a thought that put a smile on his face, that was almost a grin. How easy it would be to set them on fire. All it took, he immediately recognised while walking by, was for a small incendiary device to be placed in the gap made by the pedestal each sat on, and within seconds the thing could be ablaze. What’s more—and this thought followed on directly from the first—no sooner would one have caught fire, than the two next to it would do too.
In fact, and George who had a visual brain imagined this as a diagram straight away, you only had to light numbers 2, 5, 8 and 11 in any row of twelve to be sure they would all go up in flames almost simultaneously:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11 – 12
o – √ – o – o – √ – o – o – √ – o – o – √ – o
That’s one in three, George thought, and the smile on his face broadened; and his eyes, dulled by the ordinariness of his life thus far, lit up, just a little.