Look at this parade of off-duty bellringers limping into the seaside cafeteria. Or don’t look. It might be better to avert your eyes. Look instead at the charabanc from which they have been debouched. The charabanc driver is leaning against his charabanc puffing on a cigarette. He wears a peaked cap which sits uneasily on his big blockish head. There is an emblem, an embroidered badge, stitched to the front of the cap, consisting of a generic bird silhouette and a Latin tag. Neither you nor the charabanc driver know enough Latin to be able to translate it. I do. It says “Forward To The Seaside!” There is no exclamation mark in the Latin original, but I have added one to indicate the imperative. The command or aspiration implicit in the slogan has been met. We are indeed at the seaside. If there was any doubt, gulls are screeching and briny water is sloshing against the posts that support the pier.
The cafeteria is alongside, but not on, the pier. There is, between them, an amusement arcade. This is a place of sin, so we shall shun it. For a moment, when I saw the parade of limping bellringers heading in its direction, I feared they would be tempted to enter, placing their immortal souls in peril. With what relief, then, to watch them continue past it, and go into the cafeteria, every man jack of them, though there are women as well as men, among the bellringing party.
Why do they limp, the bellringers?
The charabanc driver is no limper, but he has other problems, not unrelated. He has not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but six, yes six!, phantom limbs. In addition to the two legs God has given him, in his mind he has a further six legs, upon which he scuttles. His brain is that of a spider. It is, thankfully for the rest of us, a very rare mental delusion. To the innocent spectator, his gait is unremarkable. Certainly, at this seaside scene, the eye is drawn to the limping of the bellringers, not to the pacing across the carpark of the charabanc driver, as he stubs his cigarette out under his boot and walks off along the promenade. Only within his fantastical spidery brain is he scuttling. Only within his fantastical spidery brain is he spinning a silken web as he walks. And only within his fantastical spidery brain will he entrap in his web a fly, and gobble it up, still living, still breathing. It is a wonder such a man can be entrusted to drive a charabanc.
In the cafeteria the bellringers have come limping to a table and sat around it. They order tea and sausages and eggs and ice cream. When the factotum disappears behind a door behind the counter to pass their order to the cook, the bellringers each take, from the roomy pockets of their blazers, a handbell. Then it is clang clang clang for thirty seconds, until the factotum rushes out and demands to know what all the racket is in aid of. The oldest and most wizened of the bellringers, the one with the most pronounced limp when in motion, explains that they are providing seaside cafeteria bellringing entertainment. The factotum waves her arms wide, and looks from right to left and from left to right, as if to say, but there are no other cafeteria patrons, it is off season, it is pouring with rain, who are you entertaining?, for it is surely not me, I am as deaf as a post, as is the cook in the kitchen behind the door behind the counter, look at the sign in the window.
There is a sign in the window of the cafeteria, unnoticed by the bellringers, which announces that it is a seaside cafeteria for the hard of hearing and the stone deaf, though patrons with good ears are also welcome, if they are sympathetic. The limping bellringers are not sympathetic. They are sour and indignant. With exaggerated scraping of their chairs upon the linoleum and much huffery, they get up from the table and limp their way out of the cafeteria, slamming the door behind them. The deaf cook in the kitchen has already begun to prepare their sausages and eggs, which will end up in a bin for pigs.
Several hundred yards along the promenade, leaning against the railings in the rain, the charabanc driver has stopped to smoke another cigarette. He is staring at the sea. He sees the sea as a spider might see it, as a vast illimitable drowning pool. If the tide were out, he would like to scuttle across the wet sands, spinning his fantastical imagined web, trapping tiny seashore creatures for his lunch, but the tide is in, the sea is sloshing against the great stone wall atop which are placed the railings. The steps down to the sands are submerged and slimy. He chucks his cigarette end into the sea. A gull swoops to investigate the fallen floating bobbet, then soars away, dissatisfied.
Now the limping bellringers approach the charabanc driver. They are wearing rainhats. Unlike the driver’s cap, their hats do not sport an emblem of a generic bird silhouette and a Latin tag. They are plain and beige and shapeless. Their spokesman, the ancient one, demands they be taken back aboard the charabanc and driven to the next resort along the coast. Having nothing better to do, the driver agrees. But might I ask, he adds, what has caused you all to be afflicted with a limp? No you may not, comes the reply.
I watch from my seat in the bus shelter across the road. I, too, would like to know why they limp. I would like, too, to know more about the charabanc driver and his spidery delusions. There is much I would like to know, while I wait for the 49. It is a pity, a very great pity, that a vandal in the night time smashed the glass on the bus company display board at the bus stop and tore down and tore up and scattered to the four winds the notice announcing that the 49 would no longer stop here. Later, much later, when the rain has ceased, I will give up the ghost and walk to the cafeteria and, unsour, unindignant, order tea and sausages and eggs and ice cream. I will clang no handbell. By that time, the limping bellringers will be far away, further even than the next resort along the coast, caught in the charabanc driver’s spidery web, damned to perdition.