Dempsey

by Matt Triewly

I was just past the Liz Earle shop on the right hand side of bustling Union Street when I had recognized her, recognized her after all those years. I was strolling down and she was marching up in the early June sun. She wouldn't have acknowledged or greeted me because she didn't know me, I think, but I knew her. Kind of.

She was probably middle to late forties now but she hadn't lost her film star looks, though I was far more interested in what her thoughts and reflections might have been. I have to admit, she'd looked composed and at ease. But then she always did...

*

About thirty years ago we used to frequent a bar, the Ocean Breeze, on Sandown sea front. It was only a road's width from the sandy beach and the English Channel and aptly named.

In those days I worked nine to five with weekends off and weekends meant drinking, socialising and occasionally, very occasionally, getting lucky with a female. Most of my chums were now paired up and I was beginning to feel a little out of it. About ten months later I too 'paired up' and in retrospect feeling a 'little out of it' was a hundred times preferable than being 'fully in'. But that's another tale.

Still, I had a couple of mates who I could phone and persuade to accompany me out and we would normally start the weekend on a Friday night. On the Island in the late seventies and early eighties most people looking for nightlife would head over to Sandown and Shanklin which was effectively one stretched town along the coastline of Sandown Bay since the boroughs merged into each other.

There were a lot of great establishments to enjoy: The Crab Inn, Holliers, The Chine, Keats Inn, The Eastcliff Club, The Beachcomber Bar - which kept young alligators in a pool separated from the clientele only by a low pseudo stone wall, The Bird Cage discothèque - so called because extremely scantily clothed ladies would be hung tantalizing above the dance floor in a cage, The Jolly Sailor, Colonel Bogey's nightclub and The Yaverland which we found out later was a gay bar. There were numerous other pubs and hotel bars all crammed in the busy summer season and more so at weekends.

Being only about fifty yards away from Colonel Bogey's, the Ocean Breeze, along Culver Parade, was normally the last regular bar on the reveller's itinerary as you could park your vehicle in Colonel Bogey's car park before it got busy and then walk to the disco's entrance. It also wasn't a bad idea to divest yourself of the car prior to the police turning up at about eleven to make their presence known as we all used to drink and drive in those days.

The Ocean Breeze was a single storey affair with a glass frontage bisected by a door normally hooked open. It was probably about twenty foot wide with roughly carved wooden tables and bamboo backed chairs each side of a central aisle - to allow access to the bar at the far end - and about fifty feet deep. It was low ceilinged and illuminated dimly and cosily with low wattage red bulbs. The walls were clad with a faux bark in, what looked like, an attempt to recreate the interior of a Polynesian hut with a few garish murals hung up of Pacific Islanders fishing and sailing to strengthen the effect - I rather warmed to it, but then I'd never been there during the daylight hours or when sober.

Beyond the single bar would be the storage area and modest living quarters, the exclusive domain of the owner and manager, Dempsey. Dempsey wasn't his real name - I did know his real name for a short while but I have forgotten it now - but I labelled him that because it kind of suited him.

Dempsey was middle-aged with thick black hair slicked back across his crown and around about five eleven in height; he was possibly only a little overweight. He had a round florid complexioned face from an excess of alcohol with puffy eyes and a slightly flattened nose; at first sight the word 'pug' would come to mind, but he was a gentleman.

We knew he'd been a boxer and that he'd been in the Royal Navy - the black and white framed photos on the side of the bar told that story. One picture showed a wiry young handsome man in a singlet holding a trophy up in a ring amongst his entourage and another was of him in a petty officer's uniform in front of a warship in a foreign port; Singapore? Gibraltar?

Those days were over now, and so I guessed was his marriage. He would have been okay money wise with a good pension and also a pay-out from the selling of the marital home though I am joining the dots now as I don't really know. He was obviously well off enough to buy a bar and a profitable bar at that.

He was an affable man and would always address you as sir, or madam, but you knew if you gave him serious hassle he'd knock you cold, clean out. He had a style about him: Rick from Casablanca or Maurice Allington, played by Albert Finney, in The Green Man; though I never saw him don a white dinner jacket. He would wipe the table tops and empty the ashtrays whilst he left his staff to serve; he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. He was socially adept; always said the appropriate thing and took the right actions. I sort of admired him. And now I have to explain something.

I have always hated the idea of getting old, and now I am old, I fucking hate it. I never relished the prospect of going grey, wrinkly, flabby and losing my health and sanity. I always vowed that I would kill myself before I reached that miserable condition; I guess there's still time to minimise the suffering. The human condition to me doesn't really make any sense, I mean nature brings us into being and at the same time gives birth to an ego that rebels against the ways of the very agency that created it in the first place. The 'oneness of nature' - pah!

I have digressed - sorry. As I have just stated I always hated getting old but when I used to observe Dempsey, I would be early twenties then, I started to think that if you could cultivate a style such as his then maybe it wouldn't be too bad ageing - maybe. Naturally, I never revealed my inner thoughts or fears to any of my friends; that's another of my problems: repression.

Anyway, one evening a beautiful young woman came into the bar, ran up to Dempsey and threw her arms around him.

"Lucky old fucker. How did he manage to pull a gorgeous creature like her?" my mate had waxed enviously.

"I think it's actually his daughter," I'd responded; correctly as it happened.

I reckon she was about eighteen and she did indeed have film star looks: naturally blonde, very pretty, perfect complexion and stunningly proportioned figure. Well out of my league.

We saw her quite a bit after that - she was regularly down at Colonel Bogey's - and I was infatuated with her, so infatuated with her that I could never pluck up the courage to approach her. She was constantly surrounded by admirers though I never saw her with a boyfriend. I would fantasize about being with her and having Dempsey as a father figure. I'd sometimes wonder what they would say if they knew what the quiet, skinny and plain lad was imagining. It's odd how we become obsessed with people we only know on the outside; and really don't know at all.

When I look back there was no doubt that she was a daddy's girl; there was a strong bond between them.

About three months later Dempsey had committed suicide; he'd attached a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and gassed himself. I'd read the report a dozen times in The County Press. I couldn't believe it. He was only forty nine. Only.

I thought a lot about her; and cried for her sometimes when I was alone. It also struck me that his whole persona was a mask, a carefully constructed mask to conceal his deep depression, magnified by alcohol, perhaps because of the break-up of his marriage. I wondered if he too feared the onset of age.

I stopped thinking about it all after a while because I met the person who was to become my wife; and she wasn't too dissimilar physically from Dempsey's daughter coincidentally...

*

I'd let her pass me in the street but really I'd craved to introduce myself and blurt it all out. I'd wanted also to know how her life changed after that terrible tragedy but I'd never had the courage; just as I had lacked it three decades previously.

Enough said.

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