By Randall Stone
I tried the handle but the door was locked. What a pity. After that rather violent run in with the tramp at the top of the alley, I could have done with a drink to unwind. It was a beautiful, two storey building with a thatched roof. Not at all what one would expect to find in the middle of a modern city. I looked once more at the peeling sign above the door that ran with the legend, Midway Inn, and felt my belly growl.
I had no real urge to tangle with that tramp again but this was a dead end alley and I had no choice but to pass him again if I wanted to get out. A solid click and a creak had me turning around to face a young, buxom looking woman in what appeared to be a Tudor Serving wench's dress. She smiled warmly from the door way and the gesture accentuated her attractiveness. With a will of iron, I tore my gaze from her ample and heaving bosom and returned the smile.
"Afternoon sir. Would you like to come in?" she asked. I checked my watch. 11.56am.
"Well, if your open. . .?" I intoned. She smiled again and nodded. Stepping to one side, she ushered me in. It was almost dinner time and, as I said before, I could have really used that drink. The inside of the place was every bit as delightful as the outside. Dark wood panelling and horse brasses everywhere. I waited before the bar for her to join me.
"What can I get you dear? She asked.
"I'll have a large whisky please." I fumbled for my wallet and held out a ten pound note.
"Oh no dear, this one's on the house." she smiled. Again, I was struck by her beauty.
"That's very kind of you." I grinned.
"Not at all. Now, will you be eating?" I couldn't help but warm to her easy going manner.
"Do you have a menu?" I asked.
"We have Rump Steak, Lamb or Chicken, done with all the trimmings and a flagon of ale." My mouth began to water.
"I'll take the steak, thank you." She grinned and disappeared through a side door. Pity Joe and Chris aren't with me, I thought, as I turned from the bar, they'll never believe me when I tell them about her rack.
I wandered over to the far wall where an array of etchings and monochrome photographs caught my eye. Sipping my whisky, I began to study them in the peaceful ambience of the place. They were of varied scenes and all had captions beneath them. The first few were old, medieval etchings, reproductions I guessed, and they showed the city between the periods of 1486 and 1591. They denoted various crop failures and plagues and the number of citizens who died throughout each one.
The pictures turned from etchings to watercolours, again, each image depicting a disaster in the city's history and each one numbering the lives lost in each event. Rather morbid, I thought, but intriguing nonetheless. Soon I came to the photographs. The first one showed a fine, three masted clipper named Sea Mist. Apparently the liner had sailed from Findon in 1841, bound for Portugal, but had sunk somewhere in the East Atlantic with the loss of 80 souls. Beside this was another photograph of a burnt out shell of a building with an old fire engine and crew standing before it. Cassell's Warehouse Disaster 1852, Fifteen Dead. Read the caption. A lone figure stood in the next frame, the sepia shade of the photograph enhancing somehow, the child's
Midway Café/R. Stone
child's innocence and beauty. Alice Ingles, aged 8. Found strangled in Ridway Park, April 6th 1860. I gazed at the child's sombre expression and wondered how anybody could be so cruel as to end the life of one so precious. Two young boys stood side by side in the next picture, their clothing poor and threadbare. John and Thomas Simpkin, aged 6 and 11yrs, found drowned in Redman's Canal, August 12th1864.
And so the pictures went on, their quality improving the further towards the present we came. The captions however remained constant. Only the numbers of the damned fluctuated. Pier Front Fire, 19th May 1907, Twenty Three Dead. Read another. The more I read, the sicker I was beginning to feel. There was nothing positive in any of these pictures. Everyone of them depicted death in one form or another. I began to feel that I was drowning in a black depression, but underlying all this was a feeling of tingling, growing terror.
The glass slipped from my numb fingers and smashed against the stone flagged floor. I barely noticed it for all my concentration was focussed on the last photograph. I fell backwards, a nearby table preventing me from hitting the deck all together.
"Oh I'm sorry dear. This isn't the way I wanted you to find out." I turned my head slowly, as if in a dream, to see the concerned face of the serving girl. She placed a tender hand on my shoulder as I turned back to the monochrome photo and my own face staring back at me. Carl Taylor, Fatally Stabbed in a scuffle in Green Street, Findon, July 20th 2009. It was today's date. An instinctive reaction, I clutched my chest. My hand came away dripping crimson. I had been right to fear the tramp.
"This is where they come for a last meal and drink before going on dear. Its always been this way. This is the midway house." said the serving girl and there was a great deal of sadness in her tone when she spoke. The delicious aroma of frying steak swept over me as she led me to a table in the deserted Inn. . .