The Penitents of Camber Sands weren’t nuns, they just liked wearing black. Nor, thought Travis, between blows, were they exactly penitent. He was trying to focus on the issue of taxonomy in the hope it might distract him. As none of them had ever played an instrument, never mind a gig, you couldn’t really call them a band, though that was how they self-defined. Gang was the word that sprang to mind, as his mind bounced off the floor, but he didn’t want to encourage them. It occurred to him that he should ease off on the classification and concentrate on escaping. Unfortunately, classification was what he did. He couldn’t deny there was a brutal, driving rhythm developing as they kicked him that he found thrillingly primal. Though he still preferred the diminuendo that occurred as they lost interest, and the long, silent coda after they left for the bar which reminded him of the echoing sound of a grand piano’s last chord in Studio Two at Abbey Road.
When he was sure they weren’t coming back, Travis staggered to his feet and tried to compose himself, find a little dignity, despite the gigantic beer stain situated front stage right of his crotch. A few people looked at him without looking at him and he shrugged and smiled. He used to think of it as a winning—if slightly shit-eating—grin, but these days it split his face open. He was a Cheshire Cat who had lost his powers, floorbound, forever invisible. Travis pulled the scraggy overcoat round him. Fifteen years back, when he found it in a now-closed vintage store in Camden, it might have been cool. He wasn’t quite ready to give up on the idea. That was the thing about clothes—the way you decayed inside them, matching their increasing tattiness with extra weight and tired eyes. He tried not to think about it. He tried to steer clear of his reflection.
All things considered, Travis was rather pleased to have been attacked. He could have done without the bruises and the incoming headache, but on the other hand, it had been a good few years since anyone had cared enough to kick the shit out of him. In the old days he’d always had to be careful at gigs—wary, coming in late and staying at the back of the room with a wall behind him, keeping an eye out for this or that offended band member or overprotective superfan. What bliss it was to be a music journalist back then! How powerful they had felt, how young! All-expenses-paid trips back and forth to New York! Free T-shirts! Listening parties! Free hoodies! That afternoon putting all kinds of things up his nose with the bass player from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin!
It was more than just getting old. The world had changed, objectively, and was none the better for it. You couldn’t go around saying the Internet was shit, but the Internet was shit. He remembered how excited he’d been when one of those music websites had set up in the States and offered to pay him a dollar a word for a column about the gig scene in London, which he could knock off in less than an hour. He kept remembering it, over and over again, while he was making tea, while he was typing away on his laptop, while he was doing a phone interview with some electronic-music producer or other living in Scotland or another cold place who he wasn’t interested in anyway. He tried to remove it from his head now as he peered through the door and into the bar area, worried about where the Penitents might be. It had been great and everything, but he didn’t want any more. He wanted a pint.
* * *
Travis began to worry about his ribs. This was a little later, after imbibing the gaseous yellow piss they served in a malleable plastic beaker for a fiver a pop which, contrary to expectations, had done nothing to improve his mood. It hurt to breathe. He thought he could make out a whistling sound, much like a dying balloon, that shouldn’t be there. He imagined that laughing would be agony but he had no reason to laugh. He was also limping and there was a dull throb in his lower back to complement the dull throb in his head. He had no one to talk to and didn’t want to talk to the few people he knew at the festival, even if any of them were here now, which they weren’t. There were still almost six hours to fill until The Fall were due onstage and if he carried on strolling around he was bound to bump into the Penitents again, or Paul Lamb from the bloody Guardian, who he still thought of as the intern from Sounds and who he frequently fantasised about beating to death with a heavy shovel. In his current condition, he would be unworthy of the task.
He went back to the chalet and found his roommate, Chris, was already there. He and Chris went back a long way, though they weren’t friends. They had been billeted together by the festival organisers at the end of separate and independent, semi-successful campaigns to blag free tickets. Chris was tall, badly dressed in a different way to most ageing music journalists, with an eidetic memory for band members and B-sides, for synth names and samples, which Travis would have found threatening if Chris were not such an appalling writer. He would be better used as a database than a prose stylist, and as there were now databases full of exactly this sort of information, he was functionally redundant. Chris was huddled beneath a blanket, kneeling in front of the electric fire, which he had neglected to turn on, the light reflecting off the thick lenses of his glasses as he angled his head up towards the new entrant. He spoke through gritted teeth.
—Maybe turn the fire on . . . ?
—Doesn’t work. Gave us a dud.
—Oh, well, maybe we should . . . ?
—Gave us a dud on purpose. Fucking fuckers.
—What you mean on purpose? We’ll just ask them to move us.
—Already did. There’s nothing available. Should’ve seen her face. Loving it.
—What, you mean they . . . ?
It took a moment for Travis to process this.
—Shall we have a cup of tea then?
—Can’t. Kettle’s broken.
—I might have a shower . . .
—No hot water.
—Shit. And you reckon it’s . . .
—On purpose. Yeah. Definitely.
They paused for a moment, unsure where this left them, then Chris remembered his manners, one winged arm flapping out.
—You wanna share some blanket?
—Ah, no, you’re alright. I can get my own.
Chris shook his head gravely, his eyes very big behind their lenses.
—Only gave us one.
* * *
Huddled there, trying to pretend he wasn’t, Chris very close, his breathing rather too laboured for comfort, sure now that at least one rib was cracked or even snapped, Travis kept worrying away at the mystery of the Penitents. Now that the adrenalin spike had dissipated, he found himself more scared than intrigued. He had no idea how he had merited the kicking. They had come at him very fast and without explanation. Secretly, he hoped they had recognised him, somehow remembered and objected to his lacerating attack on the third Sonic Youth album, but deep down he knew this wasn’t true. The Penitents, Chris told him when he mentioned them, as casually as he could, were a bunch of new mothers, all well into their thirties, currently on maternity leave from jobs in the City or high up in the civil service, here at this holiday camp to listen to grungecore and relive some version of riot grrrl they never actually took part in. That was nostalgia for you, he thought: not as good as it used to be. He’d hope they might score some bad skag, but it seemed unlikely at a Pontins. And anyway, in all honesty, he wished them no harm. He only wished they’d attacked him where more people could have seen. Though not enough to merit a repeat.
The sense of threat at least made crouching here with Chris seem bearable. And to be fair to the guy, he did generate a lot of heat. The problem would be tonight. The Fall were headlining, and he was writing a review for fk1dk.com, a new music website he despised and who wouldn’t pay him for his work, but whose name had proved instrumental in getting him a ticket. He could hardly afford to miss it. He knew it was ridiculous but he still harboured the hope that a byline on fk1dk.com might somehow reignite his barely smouldering career. On the other hand, he knew the Penitents would be there, too. Everyone would be there. The only reason for spending a wet weekend in November at this holiday camp was the hope that Mark E. Smith might die onstage so you could say I was there. The thought made his ribs hurt a little more. Hopefully they would be down the front, beating up middle-aged men in the mosh pit, and his time-honoured skulking technique would prove successful. He had to be careful not to stand too near the bar, he thought, and also to make sure the bar wasn’t between him and an exit. He could perhaps use Chris as some sort of point man or decoy or even sacrificial lamb, if the worst came to the worst. Chris had a kind of slaughterhouse vibe, Travis thought, like the younger brother of a member of Devo left behind in Akron to work shifts in an abattoir. He should get him some white wellingtons. Or green, maybe. Something easy to hose down.
His phone rang in his pocket, and he cursed as he tried to tear it out from there—an impossible task with his legs bent, so that he struggled upright, the blanket caught over his head, Chris complaining about the draught, and the insistent repeat of Kylie singing about how lucky she was, muffled but distinct enough to set his teeth on edge. It had been like this for a month now. His nephew had put it on there as a hilarious joke and he had no idea how to take it off again. He was forced to pretend it was ironic and was surprised by how often this worked. All the same, the tune itself had drilled its way through his self-control, thin shatter lines running out from it in every direction, so that when he heard it he wanted to stamp on the fucking thing and only the lack of funds with which to replace it acted as a leash upon those dreams. He dropped it when it finally propelled itself free of his unbecomingly skinny jeans, striking Chris’s head with a satisfying crack before thudding down onto the lino, where he scrabbled to retrieve it, frantically swiping at the screen with his index finger, the ancient software struggling to keep pace.
Theo being Travis’s real name, the one he bore before he transformed himself into a hip young gunslinger, it could only be his mother, who had never made the adjustment, or his wife, in a mood with him about something. His ex-wife. It was constantly surprising to him how hard he found it to hang on to this fact, as if it were an extremely smooth rock slathered in butter, on which he balanced, naked, also covered in butter.
—Sid wants to talk to you.
—Oh. Oh right. I’m a bit busy now.
—It’ll only take a minute.
—Yeah, but . . .
—You were meant to see him this weekend, Theo. Surely you can spare a minute?
Her voice thrummed with ill-concealed irritation.
Hesitation as the phone was passed over, quiet voices talking just offstage, then . . .
A pause, snuffles, some deep breathing.
—No, it’s Daddy, Sid. It’s Daddy.
—Daddy. It’s Daddy, Sid. Say Daddy.
—It’s Daddy. Say Daddy. Daddy.
The breathing receded, more unintelligible chat, then Kate.
—He’s your son, Theo. Call me when you’re back.
He tried to respond but she was already gone.
* * *
What did it all mean? What the fuck did it all mean? He had to ask himself that. He had to ask himself that most days. The answer was never satisfactory, but somehow always less satisfactory when in a room where beer adhered your feet gently but insistently to the floor. He never felt less likely to escape than at these moments.
The Fall were just starting up. Chris had shouted the line-up in his ear but he didn’t recognise any of the names and wasn’t sure whether it was the same band, partially the same band, or a completely different band to when he’d seen them play back in May. He narrowed his eyes and nodded his head roughly in time with the beat and tried to decide if it was a good vintage, or terrible, or absolutely one of the greats. He wasn’t sure. They sounded quite tight but it was hard to be certain if that was good or bad. Mark E. Smith staggered on from stage left and started hollering into a microphone. Disappointingly, he looked in excellent health. He seemed agitated about something and danced as if a small terrier had a hold of his trouser leg. Travis recognised the song but then again didn’t. He took out a notebook and thought about making some notes, but he didn’t want to put his pint down. Anyway, Chris would be able to provide him with the set list and so on—better just to feel it, to think of a classy turn of phrase or two and leave the details till later. He made a chuggy face of the sort he felt Mark E. Smith would appreciate if he were somehow to pick him out in the crowd. He was pretty sure Mark E. Smith would not pick him out in the crowd and was grateful for this. He whirled his arms in tight little circles and tried to feel something, or to fake it, anyway.
Travis was so caught up in his own performance that he didn’t see her approach him, nor hear her first attempt to engage him. As a result, he only became aware of her when she tapped him gently on the arm. This, and the sight of her standing so close to him, was enough to send a spasm of fear through his body, so that his pint, still almost full, moved upwards and toward him as he leapt back from her, stung, and found a new though very different home, across his shoulder and upper arm. She moved in on him and he tried to get away, lurching back into the wall and slapping at her hands in panic, a small space forming around him as the crowd stepped away, trying not to look, smirking and raising their eyebrows and nudging each other. It took him another moment or two to realise she wasn’t trying to attack him, that she had her hands raised and anyway was alone. Travis stood, his own hand behind him still feeling for the wall, breathing hard, cold beer soaking through to his shirt. She bent down and picked his notebook out of a puddle of drink. It seemed she was trying to say sorry.
* * *
They sat outside the venue on a bench next to a partially rotted white picket fence and a small, shrubby hedge. It was very cold now that the sky had cleared—their breaths clouded up round their faces as lost, dissipating souls—but Jenny didn’t seem in a rush to get back inside. She had bought Travis a pint and a whisky chaser to replace the beer he had spilt and to apologise for the beating, which, it turned out, had been a case of mistaken identity. The Penitents, Jenny explained, were bound together by a solemn oath to revenge themselves on the men who had wronged them. Martha had mistaken Travis for Janine’s ex-husband, apparently a renowned ligger but also something of a lothario, so Travis didn’t feel all bad. Janine had missed the trip with flu and they had only realised their mistake when they rang her to tell her of their proxied victory. It turned out the ex-husband was there with her, looking after their son.
Despite the pain he felt at having not been recognised after all, Travis had decided to take it in good heart. He’d even bought Jenny a drink back—a double—trying to look like he wasn’t checking how much money he had left. She was quite cute, he thought, unsure if it would be insulting to tell her so—dressed in Docs, all in black, with the tacky cut-down Ramones T-shirt and the serious, slightly cross-eyed look of someone who wanted to get things right. She was younger than him, probably quite a bit younger, he thought, when he thought about it, then decided not to think about it. The Fall had either thundered or blundered on (he would have to ask Chris later) while he and Jenny—much like the man onstage—shouted at one another and pulled exaggerated faces. Travis had taken it for flirtation, and his grin nearly reached his ears.
Just when he thought his vocal chords might finally give out, she had invited him to join her for a cigarette. He couldn’t wait to get outside. He shot what he took to be a wry smile at Chris and guided her to the exit. He was sweating so badly the beer no longer showed. He was too old even for The Fall, which was like being too old for Beethoven. Travis had given up smoking eighteen months or so back, replacing his fags with an ugly looking e-cigarette, of which, on the whole, he was inordinately fond. He found now, though, that he didn’t want to get the contraption out in front of Jenny, the feel of it in his pocket both baroque and penile. Instead, he stole one of her roll-ups and unleashed great plumes of smoke into the air as he tried to impress her with hints about his career in music and the people he knew. It was best to stick to hints. Jenny herself did something so boring and worthy he forgot what it was almost as soon as she told him, in fact even as she told him. He wasn’t in it to learn about housing policy. She sat close to him on the bench, shivering slightly, and his arm snuck out along the back of it—his hand, holding his wet notebook, flapping and revolving at its end, unsure of what to do with itself.
—So you never told me what happened with yours.
—Your bastard ex.
—I presume you’ve all got a bastard ex.
—Oh. Yeah. Yeah we have.
—You don’t want to hear all that.
Travis didn’t, but then again he did. He liked to think he wasn’t so bad. It was appropriate to seem caring. He looked her right in the eye, his head tilted down.
—Go on, honestly.
—He left me. After . . .
There was a pause, and Travis sensed it and could have stopped it but he motioned her on, a character in a cartoon just starting down a ski slope.
—He left me after our daughter died.
A certain shrinkage occurred somewhere deep inside him. He couldn’t help see an ambush, all over again. He glanced up quickly, for help or another surprise attack.
—Oh. I’m sorry. I . . .
—Our little girl. Maisy. She was only tiny. She was really premature, really early and they, well, they couldn’t, she didn’t, she didn’t make it through.
Jenny leant into him then and she was crying, quietly, shaking, the tears tracking gravity down her face. Travis didn’t know what to say. He put his arms around her and rubbed at her back and looked up at the cold stars above them. His ribs were throbbing. He returned his attention to her, his arm already stiff and uncomfortable. He knew it was wrong to think it, but he hoped he might be in, that this tragedy would present him with opportunity. She carried on crying and he tried to make a sympathetic sound: a strange, strangled gurgle. He waited for as long as he could and she kept on crying. He wanted to believe in his decency, and to achieve this he needed to postpone his own need. He could see the open pages of the damp notebook over her shoulder. He had written something there, a single word, and it took on, at this moment, the utmost importance. Try as he might he couldn’t read his writing. Back beyond the door, the music rumbled on.
Will Ashon is the author of two novels, Clear Water and The Heritage, both with Faber & Faber. He is also the founder of Big Dada Recordings, a record label. His most recent project was the micro-fiction collection, Shorter, published as a phone app. He is currently working on a book about counter-culture, enclosure, magic, mad dogs and Epping Forest.@willashon
The Open Pen Anthology is a collection of short stories old and new, celebrating the first five years of Open Pen magazine. Open Pen is a free short fiction magazine stocked in independent bookshops across the country. Its aim is to give a voice to fiction writers with something to say, willing to take a risk. Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug declared the collection, “More like a shot of absinthe than a pint of boring lager.”