“This is more like a metal detector than a racket,” I said to my Dad, waving the bent and damaged badminton racket over the grass.
“I'd forgotten how mangled so many have gotten since your brother stopped playing,” he said, his deep voice sounding older and more crackly than I expected.
The sun was still high, and a cool but comfortable heat lay across us as we made our way over the sports field. It had been years since I'd been to Eastbrook. Our family used to visit a lot when I was younger, mostly for sports tournaments my brother was involved in.
I looked over at a small brick building by the train lines. It was a café when I was younger, now it appeared to be some kind of run-down grocery shop.
We walked past a group of kids. They must have been about thirteen or fourteen. One of them made some kind of cocky remark about the damaged badminton racket, but we ignored them. I was too old to care about the opinion of children anymore.
I held up the racket again. I must have been their age when I'd bought it. It had a camouflaged colour scheme with translucent strings. It looked a lot better than it played. This was probably why I bought it, and why it was now in this condition.
Eventually we made our way to the gate by the fence. It was one of those sliver steel gates with the big deadbolts that you see everywhere across the UK. From hospitals and schools, they always seem to be evergreen.
The Eastbrook train station was probably the smallest I'd ever seen, even compared to back home. There was a tiny ticket office that seemed no bigger than a wardrobe, and a small waiting room that still had a colour scheme from 1957.
As my Dad's trainers softly tapped the crinkled concrete platform, his train pulled into view.
“Well,” he said, turning. “It was good seeing you again.”
“Let Mam know I've been asking after her,” I replied, shaking his hand.
“I will,” he said, smiling. “You say hi to your brother if you see him before I do.”
“No problem,” I said, as the train came to a stop and it's doors hissed open. “You'd better get going. The trains in Eastbrook don't hang around too long.”
We hugged. I was in Eastbrook for the weekend and I hadn't seen my Dad since he'd retired. Eastbrook was only about half hour on the train, and he decided to pop over to visit. Since we used to come here to play badminton he'd decided to bring our old sports equipment, not counting on the condition of the rackets.
He waved as he climbed up the ramp. “Enjoy the convention,” he called.
Dad was referring to the Eastbrook CogCon. A comic-stroke-gaming-stroke-steampunk convention that had started up a couple years ago. In all honesty it hadn't appealed that much to me until I read a write up on the event. It genuinely intrigued me on how different it sounded compared to the usual routine.
I still had a couple days leave to use, so I took the time off work and signed up to GeekShare. An online app where people of similar interests would bunk up together at cheap hotels and split the price equally. Living on threadbare income and generally being a pinko-commie-liberal-socialist I decided that would be the route for me.
I'd been allocated a room share with some guy called Luke Bains. We corresponded a little online and he seemed like a reasonable fellow. He should have already checked in at the cheapo Road Inn, so it was just a matter of me making my way over.
It was just a short walk down by the train line.
The receptionist had confirmed that I'd been checked in, and that my co-lodger had already been given my pass card. I decided I couldn't be bothered waiting for the lift and made my way up the stairs to Room 403.
The stairs were harder going than I expected, and by the time I'd got there I was panting slightly. I knocked on the door.
There was a short pause where presumably Luke was scrambling for the peep hole, and then fiddling with the deadbolt. When I heard the click I turned the handle and pushed the door open.
“Oh, hello,” came an unexpected voice.
This wasn't Luke Bains.
The girl was shorter than me. About five foot one. She wore what appeared to be some kind of steampunk styled waist-corset and a grey shirt. Her smile was pleasant and disarming. Her nose was stubby, and her eyes betrayed an intelligence beyond her years.
She pulled her long hair into a ponytail and put a band around it, then held out her hand. “Trisha Cornerstone,” she said pleasantly.
Her polite demeanour reassured me that she was a reasonable person, but I wasn't yet fully at ease.
“Keith Lillyhall,” I replied, a little tremble in my voice. Taking her hand and shaking it, I noticed that I was being overly careful, as if she were a child. Then I finally remembered Luke was supposed to be here. “Where's Luke?” I asked.
She shrugged, “He had to cancel at the last minute, so he gave me his CogCon ticket instead. I'd wanted to come and he was supposed to be leaving some gaming stuff with a bunch of colleagues, so he asked me to hand them over for him.”
I stared over at a bunch of boxes in the corner by the television. “Gaming stuff?” I asked.
“Did he not tell you?” she said, curiously cocking her head. “He's a self-published developer. His co-writers will be at the con to promote their stuff, and he was responsible for the prototypes.”
Suddenly I realised we were getting ahead of ourselves. As somebody who feels progressively liberal I shouldn't have been particularly bothered about sharing a room with a woman any more than sharing with a man, but centuries of bullshit chivalry are a hard thing to shake.
“So, just to check, you're okay sharing a room?” I stuck up a thumb and pointed back at the door. “I can have a word with reception, see if they've got any spare rooms going. I'm sure GeekShare can cover it.”
Trisha laughed as I jittered on. She shook her head and put her hand on my arm, lowering it. “I'm fine. Look, if Luke was happy enough to share with you then I'm sure you'll be okay for me.”
I looked over at her hand on my arm. Again, it shouldn't have bothered me, but bullshit chivalry and all that.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry, I'm just a little nervous. It's my first time doing a GeekShare so I'm kind of out of my element this weekend.”
Trisha nodded and walked into the bathroom. “It must be the forth of fifth for me. I'll show you the ropes.”
“Really?” I said, still standing by the door like a nugget.
Her head popped out of the bathroom. “Yeah, the ropes are; relax, don't worry, and just do what you'd normally do in a hotel room.”
Suddenly I realised I'd been tensed up like I was at a job interview. She was right, I was on a weekend away, events to look forward to, and a hotel room that was on the right side of reasonable.
Casually I threw my rucksack into the cupboard and wandered over to the beds. Two queen size, not bad. Like Trisha recommended, I jumped onto the mattress and slumped into the excess pillows. Looking right, I leaned over and grabbed the TV remote. The Chase was on.
Trisha came back into the room with a toothbrush in her mouth. “Do we have to watch The Chase?” she mumbled through toothpaste. “I don't like Bradley Walsh.”
“You don't like 'are Bradley?” I said, in an exaggerated tone. “Well I'm sorry but we're going to have to re-think this room-share thing now!”
She slapped me playfully on the shoulder. “Now you're getting it!”
I smiled back.
“Eastbrook looks so different these days,” I said, as we walked past black bricked buildings towards the main promenade.
“What do you mean?” Trisha asked. “What did it used to look like?”
“Well... the same,” I replied. “But that's why it looks different. Back then this stuff all looked new, in like, 1998, 2001. Now it kind of looks like garbage. Makes me think of distorted renditions of old Whitesnake songs being played in a sports centre.”
Trisha laughed. “That's a... unique analogy.”
“We used to play badminton tournaments here, me and my brother. The sports centre always used to play Whitesnake. That's what it reminds me of.”
“What made you stop playing?” she asked.
“I was never really any good at it. I was better at video games in the end.”
She chuckled, as a group of three figures in long frock coats and top hats overtook us.
“They must be here for the con too,” Trisha noted.
“Well they're not from the local rugby team, I can tell you that much.” I said jokingly.
Trisha didn't see the funny side, and frowned.
“Sorry,” I continued. “That's like something my dad would say. If It isn't obvious I was the one who was always picked last for rugby.”
Trisha sighed, deciding to change the subject. “So, what is there to do in Eastbrook?”
I looked around. We were on the main street now, heading toward the guild hall. This part of town looked a lot more prosperous. Quirky little shops selling jams and vintage clothes sat where high street stores once did. It was different. More quaint than I remember.
“Well the pubs are supposed to be good, not that I've ever been in any of them since I was too young and a good boy back then.”
“You didn't sneak a cheeky one in?” Trisha asked.
“Even if I wanted to I was terrible at pretending to be older.” I started shaking in an exaggerated manner. “C...can I have half a pint of cider please?”
“But seriously,” I said, “The pubs and restaurants here come highly recommended. It's one of the reasons I decided to check out the con.”
“Sounds good,” Trisha said, slyly suggesting that that was our plan for later. “What about during the day? Any sights to see?”
I shrugged. “If you're a fan of industrial silos then yeah, there's plenty.” I paused, suddenly remembering something. “Oh yeah, there's also the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory museum.”
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?” Trisha said, confused. “I thought Roald Dahl was Welsh?”
“Yeah,” I said, laughing. “There's some really tenuous connection, like, the guy he based Willie Wonka on lived around here or something. It's a pretty shit museum to be honest, but hey, you asked.”
“Sometimes it's the shittiest things that end up being the most interesting. I'll have to check it out. I always liked Dahl's books.”
I nodded. “I still resent the fact that they've never made a film out of Great Glass Elevator. I always thought that was the better book.”
“Oh my god, me too!” Trisha said, her voice raising.
She held up her hand, open for a fist bump. I reciprocated.
The convention was fairly small, confined to the guild hall and mostly on the ground floor. Still, the guests were making the best of it. On my way in I saw several displays of miniature armies that looked more interesting than anything I'd seen in a shop window. Young men and women in brown leather and beige coats were rolling dice and trading cards.
It was all looking pretty fun.
“Hey Brian,” Trisha called over to a guy in a flannel shirt with a goatee.
“Trisha,” he called over, in an accent much more northern than mine. “How the heck are ya? Get over here.”
I followed Triaha as she shoved her way trough the crowd in front of his table. He appeared to be trading hardback rulebooks of some kind.
“You got the boxes okay?” Trisha asked, a little nervously. “I told the reception that Mark would be picking them up.”
“He got them fine,” Brian said calmly. His eyes flitted over to mine, then back to hers. “We're all set, don't worry about it.”
“Luke says he's sorry he couldn't make it.”
Brian waved his arm through the air. “Ahh, Luke's a prick. This is the third con he's cancelled on us. I'm used to it by now.” He smiled, and his beard curved like some woodland creature roused from slumber. “I'd much rather have the best looking girl in the north west here.”
I swallowed nervously.
“Oh please,” she said.
“But seriously, I like the look. Is that a custom waistcoat?” Brian asked.
She took a step back so we could all get a better look at what she was wearing. “Yeah, a guy back home put it together for me. You know James? His boyfriend.”
I suddenly felt a little boring in my yellow hoodie and jeans.
“Nice,” Brian nodded, before turning to me. “I'm sorry, who's your friend here?”
Trisha slapped her hand on her head in embarrassment. “Oh! I'm sorry. This is Keith, he's my GeekShare buddy. Keith, this is Brian, he's a friend of Luke's who helps him make tabletop games.”
We shook hands. I was expecting his shake to be firmer, but his grip was slack. He reminded me of me.
“If anyone helps anyone make games it's Luke that helps me. I swear we only keep him around because he's good with the maths. If he pulls this shit again I'm seriously considering cutting him out of the game.”
Trisha was taken aback, a little shocked, but not surprised. “C'mon Brian.”
“No, I'm serious. I know you like him, but the fucker needs to learn about responsibilities.”
I was standing around like a nugget again, in what was quickly turning into a domestic dispute. I had to think of something to say.
“So, uh, what's the game about?” I asked softly.
I'd caught Brian mid, rant. He stopped abruptly, and smiled. “I'm sorry,” he said, cheerfully. “I just get a little excitable about these kind of things.” He picked up a book and handed it to me. “These are my children, you know?”
I took a look at the cover. There were a bunch a gangster types shooting at each other with tommy guns, but the gangsters appeared to be Orcs and Goblins.
“Looks interesting,” I said, flipping it over and reading the blurb.
“It's a team based skirmish game,” Brian said, leaning forwards. “Each player has a squad of miniatures, and the dungeon master sets a task for them. Like, rob a bank or break a friend out of jail.”
He handed me a piece of cardboard. It looked like it had some kind of floor plan on it.
“The really interesting part is the rewards though,” Brian continued. “You only get a cut on how many of your people make it back. So there's an incentive for players to screw each other's teams over. Really tests friendships, you know?”
I glanced up from the floorplan, “I get what you mean.” I handed it back to him. “Sounds interesting.” I turned to Trisha. “Have you played it?”
She looked as if she was daydreaming. It took her a moment to realise I was speaking to her. “Hmm?” she said, before looking past me. “Oh hi Mark!”
Coming up from behind Brian was a scruffy looking lad who was at least five years younger than me. He was gangly, lanky and had thick rimmed glasses that looked as though they were glued to his face. He was carrying the boxes I'd seen in the room earlier.
“Hi Trisha,” he said wearily, before setting the boxes down.
“You got the boxes okay then?” I asked politely.
“Yeah,” Mark said gormlessly, before turning to Trisha. “Luke didn't tell me he was sending these.” He said, throwing over a handful of comics.
“Oh yeah, I didn't know,” Trisha said picking one up. “One of Luke's friends wrote a comic where he made me the main character.”
She handed me one. It had a steampunky looking girl riding a rocket with some kind of cyborg. I could definitely see the resemblance.
“It's about a space princess who falls in love with a soldier who's been turned into a cyborg. It's quite sweet.”
I went to hand it back to her, but she held out her hand.
“Keep it. He was planning on giving out free samples anyway.”
I slung around a tote bag I had accumulated from somewhere and shoved it in. Politely I also paid for the book Brian had handed me, since it genuinely looked interesting, and shoved that in too.
“Anyway boys,” Trisha said to Brian and Mark, “I don't want to keep you from your adoring fans.” She hugged the two of them then took me by the hand. “Come on,” she said to me. “Let's see what else is going on here.
“I've got to say that the mechanical elephant that young fellow had built was sublime,”
We were in a pub now, after a day of wandering the stalls. Trisha asked me to take her to somewhere I'd recommend. As I mentioned to her earlier, I'd never really been around Eastbrook at night, but she told me to just use my intuition.
We'd ended up in a sort of worn out rock pub that was, at best, reasonable. We ordered some food, which turned out to be a lot better than expected, and then ended up chatting to the group in top hats we'd ran into earlier. They were an interesting bunch, invested in 70's era rock and old horror novels. Brian and Mark joined us later, and soon the pub wasn't looking so bad after all.
Me and Trisha chatted most of the night. She told me that she had recently graduated in journalism, but was just working in a shop for the time being. After three bottles I was finally starting to relax, and subconsciously managed to put my arm around her. She didn't seem to mind.
Brian tapped me on the shoulder ominously. Cautiously, I leaned over.
“So, you just met Trisha today?”
“Yeah,” I said enthusiastically. “I was supposed to be sharing with Luke, but, as you know, he had to drop out.”
“Well you got the better end of the deal mate. I wasn't kidding earlier, the guy's a twat. Loves the fuck out of himself. If he were out tonight he'd be covered in products and trying to get everyone to go to some shit bar. Trisha's a right laugh. I don't know what she sees in him.”
“Yeah,” I turned to see that Trisha was talking to one of the top hat crew. A short, round woman with glasses on. “She's surprisingly easy to get along with.”
I went to tap Trisha on the shoulder, since I suddenly got an urge to tell her how much I was enjoying myself. She seemed to be in the middle of a conversation about Clive Barker.
“The Great and Secret Show?” the woman said.
“No, I haven't read it, but my boyfriends recommended it a few times. I should really get round to it.”
In retrospect I should have politely queried that last sentence Trisha spoke, but the truth was I'd had designs on her within two minutes of meeting her. I'd never gotten along with a girl so easily, and I'd lied to myself that sharing a room with her would have been no different than if it was with Luke.
I should have clarified. I should have established where, exactly, we stood. But I didn't. I'd convinced myself that I'd misheard, and that she'd said 'friend' or 'ex-boyfriend' or something and that for all she knew I didn't hear anything anyway.
I tapped her on the shoulder.
“Huh?” she said, turning.
The smile on her face had a gravitational pull of it's own. You could get lost in it.
“I was just telling Brian that you're surprisingly easy to get along with. I'm glad I ended up with you for my first GeekShare.”
“Aww,” she said. “Thanks Keith. You're pretty chill when you learn how to relax. We had a pretty good time today.”
“I'm glad you enjoyed it,” I said. “We really should hit up the Wonka place tomorrow. It might be shit, but it's got character.”
“So bad it's good?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “It's less about the quality and more about experiencing the attempt.”
“You know,” interrupted Brian. “If I didn't know better I'd assume that you two were old friends.”
Trisha turned to me and smiled again.
“Yeah,” I said, scratching the back of my head. “It's strange. Like deje-vu. It's almost like I've been here before. Like we've always known each other.”
“Weird,” Trisha said, non-committally.
“It's probably just the pub,” I said, picking up my bottle of beer and taking a sip. “It reminds me of one I went to in Salisbury years ago. When I was visiting Stone Henge.”
Brian nodded. His face drifted into what appeared to be a strange melancholy. “I know what you mean. There's something about that place that resonates with you. I went there one year after visiting glasto, you'll never believe what happened.”
“Oh Brian, not again.” Trisha laughed. Suddenly she leaned forward and put her arm around me, pulling me close. “Brian got his drink spiked when he was out there and is convinced he went on some kind of vision quest.”
Brian crossed his arms, insulted. “You don't understand what I saw Trisha. I visited South Dakota after that. Went to Crazy Horse. I was taken away to dream with his people.”
Trisha started laughing again, more hysterically this time.
Brian stood, looking ready to say something he might regret. Quickly, I jumped in to diffuse the situation.
“Hey, something really funny happened to me in Salisbury!”
Brian turned. Calming down, he got back to his seat.
Trisha started at me intensely.
“Well, It was before I got to the pub that reminded me of this place...”
We'd left the pub after a couple more pints and headed to a cocktail place that was doing themed drinks based on the convention. The top hat crew left first, then Brian and Mark went because they had to be up early to see to their table. Eventually it was just me and Trisha, spending the night talking about past places and people. Our respective relationship statuses was not brought up.
Finally we wandered back to the hotel room, and in the half light, began getting ready for bed.
“So,” said Trisha, unbuttoning her top. “Early doors for the con, and after that, check out Wonka.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said.
“Hey, how long are you going to be here on Sunday?”
I shrugged. “I have to be away early. GeekShare only provide you with train tickets for specific times, so I've got to be gone by half nine Sunday morning.”
“Aw man!” Trisha said sadly. “We could have hung out a little longer.”
“Yeah, that's a shame.” I said. “Well...”
I looked at Trisha, half dressed, blue light shining on her through a crack in the curtain.
Back in my university days I had a friend who told me that you always knew there was something special when the girl gave you 'the look'. The experience of ten years had taught me that, 'the look' was bollocks. It could mean many things, and not all of them good. It could be sadness, it could be tiredness, it could be anxiety. Just because a girl looks at you a certain way doesn't mean anything special.
Trisha was giving me the look, and I was already lying to myself.
“Goodnight,” I said softly.
“Goodnight,” she said.
I got under the sheets and slept soundly.
Jack Harvey 2016