With a soft electrical chuckle, lightning split the cloud-face. Thunder bellowed vocables of elemental power and all the house-lights for miles around went out.
Bel considered closing early. There were no customers and none likely tonight. All the boats were in by nightfall and the men home and dry by now. She went to the window and peered out. Black nothing; but the sea was moaning as if in travail, and dumping its thunderous tonnages of ocean like the hammering of fists on the shuddering beach. She went on lighting the candles. You never know, someone might turn up and they’d be grateful for some warmth. She built the fire and nursed it into a cheerful blaze. How pretty the room looked, all its details dimmed and the corners full of softly swaying shadows. You might almost imagine it was old Cornwall. In choosing decorations, she’d striven for authenticity, called it An Koffiji, The Coffee House, and had watched with pride as they’d painted the bi-lingual signs on the window and fascia boards.
She fell to scrying into the flames, and was lost in reverie when the door rattled and she got up quickly to be behind the counter when the customer appeared. Through the door came – no, not a child, but a small man. Bel caught her breath, he seemed so small at first, but she soon convinced herself that she’d been deluded by the dipping and swooping of the shadows around him as the wind disturbed the candles. But even sitting down he did look tiny. Maybe he’s just slouching a bit, she reassured herself, and looked at him less closely. With a bright smile, she greeted him in her best Cornish, ‘Gorthugher da, a Vester!’ and then in English, ‘Good evening, Sir!’
The little monkey face that he turned to her startled her. It was almost obscured by hair: his overhanging eyebrows, bristling side-whiskers, large moustaches, huge beard that along with the hair of his head covered his shoulders and chest and continued on down out of sight under the table. All of it was stiff and glistening with salt. Bel had mistaken it for a sort of duffle coat. She decided he must be a hippy.
To her surprise, he returned her greeting in a tuneful, chirrupy Cornish, praised the nice warm fire and asked for beer and a pasty. His little eyes glittered amicably.
It wasn’t exactly the Cornish Bel knew though she understood it, and she wondered wildly where he’d got it from. One of the other forms, probably, she thought. She wasn’t really acquainted with them all. She thought of asking him, but he was so strange she felt shy. She served him his pasty and beer and gave him his bill and then went and busied herself behind the counter. Tumultuous was the rain on the roof, though the thunder was further away.
Bel was tending the fire when the man spoke again. ‘Dha arghans!’ he called, and she heard metal hit the tabletop. She had a log gripped clumsily in her tongs and could only smile a quick ‘Meur ras!’ over her shoulder. The shadows danced wildly again, till the wind slammed the door and the stranger was gone.
The coins were large, thick, heavy and irregular. Strange was the writing on them, weird the images stamped into the metal: a large boar’s head, a ship in full sail, a wild-looking man’s profile. They almost glowed in her hand with unexpected richness and warmth, as if alive. It was warmth that flowed straight to her marrow, they were such charming coins, and she smiled, and seemed to herself to know for a moment how much they were worth. A very generous tip. . . but then she pulled herself up. This was no time for fantasy. This hippy had paid her with play money from some game or other and given her the slip. Nevertheless, she pocketed the coins and went on clearing the table. The rain fell and the wind blew steady and strong.
She had only a short sprint home, diagonally across the road. Her mac would keep her dry enough, but it would be freezing. The fire was still blazing and she procrastinated while it burned itself to embers, soaking up its comfort till the last flicker of flame. Soon she found herself fingering those coins and she took them out and looked at them again, arranging them on her knee and feeling their strange, compelling power. They were good, sound coins, two of very good gold and the largest one good bronze. They would be trusted by any merchant. She had visions of herself running out into the sunny street, her cap strings flying, over the cobbles to some haberdashery, or the fishmonger, to the rope-makers or glass-blowers – these coins would not be despised! She almost got up to try it, but the wind gusted and swooped in the scattering rain outside, and she remembered that anyway, it was night time, and there was no haberdasher, no fishmonger, no any of those, and she felt bemused.
And suddenly the lights came on again, electronica glowed, the television crackled back to life and blasted a frenetic advertising jingle into the room. Bel leapt up, shocked, not recognising any of it. What was this blaze of white light? this cacophony of weird music? those flashes of red and green? The rain had stopped and the wind was wiping up with light brisk swoops across the roof.
‘The power’s back on!’ She had to say it out loud before she really understood her own words. The Power? Yes, the lights, the television, the electronic till. It was a moment before they were familiar to her again. ‘Oh, those silly coins!’ she said, also out loud, and added, ‘I bet he was on drugs!’ She looked for them. She’d lost track of them when she’d jumped up, and search as she might she could not find them, not that evening, not the next day, nor did she ever see them again though she took out all the furniture and lifted the carpet. They were not in the ashes from the fire. They had not rolled into the next room. They were gone.
And no one among her Cornish-speaking friends had ever heard of a hippy answering the description of that customer, so fluent in such strange Cornish, who might be coming off that sea at that time of a stormy night. . .