He took a matchbox from his pocket, shook one out and lit it, fumbling with cold hands and burning his fingertip. A woman in a plastic rain bonnet frowned at him. Her dog yapped and snarled. Angry and tired, Pelly wanted to kick the dog. He buried his chin in his jacket. The dog cocked its leg and a jet of yolky urine splashed against the bandstand. A yellow stream ran past Pelly’s scuffed trainers.
‘Charming,’ Pelly mumbled.
The woman stopped and turned, pointing at him with a golf umbrella. ‘What did you say?’
Pelly shrugged. Her eyes narrowed.
‘What’s your name?’ she said.
He wanted to tell her to mind her own business, but it wasn’t how he’d been brought up.
‘You must have a name.’
‘Stephen Nash,’ Pelly said, choosing his mother’s name, ‘Stephen with a PH.’
The woman sat down next to him. She offered him an extra strong mint. Pelly inched away, hoping she didn’t notice. Refusing sweets from strangers was hardwired into his brain.
‘Do you want one or not, Stephen with a PH?’
Pelly took a mint.
‘You don’t live here, do you?’
Pelly shook his head. He had to clench and unclench his jaw to stop his teeth chattering.
‘You’re freezing. How long have you been out here?’
‘A bit, I suppose.’
She crunched her mint, cracking it between her teeth. ‘You’ve been out here hours, haven’t you?’
Pelly picked his thumbnail.
‘You’re soaked through.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ Pelly said.
‘I don’t think you will.’
She rested her palms on her knees. ‘I suppose it makes a change from London.’
‘Running away,’ she said.
Pelly stared at the sea.
‘Smart move, wasn’t it?’
When Pelly didn’t answer she said: ‘Running away to the Welsh coast in the middle of winter.’
She got up and whistled her dog. He was gnawing at driftwood, dragging it across the shingle. She stopped after a few strides and waited for Pelly to speak.
‘What are you going to do?’
Pelly didn’t answer.
‘You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you? Well, you can’t stay here all night.’
She picked up a tangle of seaweed and threw it for the dog.
‘You might as well decide in the warm.’
She walked on without looking back. Pelly got up, calves cramping, raindrops finding their way inside his collar. Shivering and wet through, with forty pence in the world, he decided to follow.
Elsie brought him cocoa and told him to rest. She gave him a monogrammed dressing gown and a thick pair of woollen socks. His wet jeans steamed away on a clothes horse.
‘You’ll have to go back,’ Elsie said.
Pelly stared at his cocoa. Elsie didn’t have a television, but she had sea views stretching from Anglesey to the Wirral when the mist lifted. She made Pelly two boiled eggs, sitting one in a guardsman eggcup. She clipped the toast into neat little soldiers, slathered with butter, for dunking.
‘I don’t want to go back,’ Pelly said when he’d eaten.
Elsie warmed her hands before the fire.
‘Your mother will be worried sick I shouldn’t wonder.’
Pelly bit his lip.
‘Do you paint?’ Elsie said.
Pelly shook his head.
‘Well you can write something then.’
She took a pen from a vase on the mantelpiece stuffed with broken pencils and horsehair brushes. She handed Pelly a book.
‘I paint, you write,’ she said. ‘So write about this.’
Elsie smiled. ‘Write what you want.’
Pelly drew a shell in the little blue book while he waited for the words to come to him.