Charles Hale is in Brighton on assignment from the Messenger, a newspaper. He is distributing Kolley Kibber cards around the seaside town, trying his best to be spotted by a loyal Messenger reader who, once he or she successfully identifies Hale and recites the pre-ordained speech, will win the newspaper’s grand prize. Those who find cards will be rewarded with 10 schillings each. Hale has a strict itinerary to follow but manages anyway to squeeze in several gin and tonics while he works. Convinced he will be murdered soon, he aloofly observes a seemingly never-ending parade of tourists, gathered in Brighton to celebrate the Whitsun holiday, or Pentecost.
Hale’s mission is, at heart, a frivolous one. Its inherent shallowness contrasts with the seriousness of his situation, and the crowds of holiday merry makers likewise underscore Hale’s bleak prospects for survival. Drinking allows him to observe the tourists with a certain amount of intellectual distance, but it is also a defense mechanism. The more he drinks, the less he thinks of his own imminent demise.
Hale is from Brighton and has a love/hate relationship with his home. He is drawn to the piers and peep shows, but, at the same time, finds the town’s more tourist-heavy sections distasteful and lonely. Upon hearing a ballad drifting out of a pub, he goes inside to see a buxom woman whom everyone calls Lily entertaining her fellow bar flies. While Hale watches her, a young, intense, and shabbily dressed man addresses him, calling him “Fred.” Hale tells the man, often referred to in the text as “the Boy” but who will later be identified as Pinkie Brown, that his name isn’t Fred. Then he invites the young man to have a drink with him. The young man opts for a grapefruit squash. Hale has a double whiskey. The young man shoots hate-filled looks at both Lily and Hale.
Names are significant in this scene. Lily’s real name is Ida, but neither the reader nor Hale knows this. Lily might be approaching middle age, but she has not lost her youthful bloom, and her essential femininity and indisputable aliveness attract Hale, who feels doomed to die. The young man who approaches him in the bar is Pinkie, but, again, he is not named, and this is the first indication the reader has that Hale is going by a pseudonym. Thus, by name at least, no one is what they seem.
Hale eventually admits to Pinkie that he is, indeed, the Fred he is looking for. He offers the young man a 10 shilling prize. Then he says he can have the grand prize if he’d prefer: 10 guineas. Disgusted, the young man throws his glass to the floor and tells the servers Hale will pay for the damage. Hale watches Lily some more and, fixated on her large breasts, feels as if he were looking at life itself while, at the same time, preparing for his own death. He is doubly convinced now that the young man and his compatriots plan to kill him.
Lily’s vitality continues to attract Hale. Her easy manner is that of the tourist on holiday, whereas Pinkie’s seemingly unprovoked fury is a reminder that not everyone in Brighton is there to have a good time. Hale’s flippant attitude, in offering Pinkie the 10-shilling prize, is an example of the newspaperman’s tendency toward gallows humor.
The only other customer in the bar is asleep. Still, Hale comforts himself with the thought that no one would dare kill him in broad daylight with witnesses nearby. Lily invites Hale to join her for a drink. He is reluctant to drink anymore and asks if she might come to dinner with him, hoping her company might save him from the young man and his cronies. Lily finds his forwardness amusing. Hale sees that, as a newspaperman on a good salary, he is out of touch with Lily and her crowd. At one time he might have known how to connect with her, but he can’t quite manage it now.
Hale takes pride in having worked his way up from lowly deliveryman to reporter, relying only on his own cunning, talent, and drive to get where he is now. His pride is his main consolation, but it also handicaps him when it comes to interacting with people like Lily. Hale’s snobbery shows here, and it foreshadows his inability to tell her the truth later when it most matters.
Lily asks Hale if he’s okay. He looks sick. He stares at her breasts and wishes he could get lost in the safety promised there. Instead, he leaves the bar and mixes again with the crowd on the street, marveling at three old ladies in a horse-drawn carriage whose lives seem remarkably peaceful and easy compared to his. He watches women walk by, chattering like parrots, and a mounted policeman pass. Hale cannot ask the policeman for help. He feels as if he is beyond help, and he knows that the young man and his gang are following his whereabouts closely. They must have purchased a Messenger themselves, so they know where he’ll be and when. A poor man sells razor blades on the corner, reminding Hale that Kite, a Brighton mob boss, was killed with one.
Hale sees the promise of comfort in Lily, mainly in her physicality. Her large breasts bring to his mind the comfort mothers give their children, but he is a grown man and must fend for himself. His reluctance to seek help from a policeman indicates that his actions leading up to this day might not have been entirely honorable, as does his mention of the circumstances surrounding Kite’s death. The razor blades are yet another hint that Hale will not be getting through this day alive.
Hale spots Cubitt, a large man with red hair. He is leaning up against a letterbox. Hale knows Cubitt is waiting for him. Determined to thwart the gang’s plans to kill him, Hale strides off in the opposite direction, hoping to pick up a girl eager to be shown a good time. This is his plan for salvation, but when he gets to the pier where young women preen on deck chairs, they seem to sense his desperation and turn away from him, laughing. Hale is humiliated and ashamed. He decides to pick out the most unattractive girl among them, settling on a fat girl covered in acne. The girl tells him she would be happy to join him for lunch, but she has a friend with her and doesn’t want to leave her behind. If he had a friend, they could be a party of four. Otherwise, no dice.
Hale’s decision to approach the woman he considers least attractive suggests that he sees women as objects rather than as complex human beings. Molly is to him merely a shield, a means to an end, and he assumes that because she is not conventionally pretty, she’ll jump at his offer of lunch because, ugly as she is, she couldn’t possibly have any other prospects. Her rejection of him takes him completely by surprise.
Almost on cue, Pinkie appears and Molly, the girl he’d been chatting up, thinks that he is Hale’s friend. Pinkie does not correct her, and Molly says that she and her friend, Delia, would now be overjoyed to accompany the two men to a nearby restaurant. Hale, unwilling to make a scene thanks to his stubborn pride, nearly goes with them, but at the last minute he breaks away and heads back down the pier where Lily sits by herself, singing a Victorian ballad about lilies and mourning shrouds. She tells Hale that someone has stolen her bag which contained 10 bob and a cache of love letters from her ex-husband, Tom.
This is a second instance of Hale’s pride getting in his way. He is unwilling to confess to his desperation, and very nearly accompanies his potential murderer to lunch. His encountering Lily a second time seems destined, more than just a matter of luck, and the fact that she is singing a song about death is another harbinger of things to come.
Lily, whose real name is Ida, is waiting for some men to return from the bathroom. It gradually dawns on her that these men, who treated her to a snack in the pub, probably stole her bag and aren’t coming back. She tells Hale that they’ll get their comeuppance one day. She is not one to let injustice go unanswered. Hale admires her breasts and legs while she reclines on the deck chair and, looking around, he is relieved to see that Pinkie and Cubitt are nowhere to be seen. In Ida, Hale sees a lover and a mother. Her body radiates comfort and sensuality. She happily talks about Tom, his desire to get her back, and his passionate love letters. She won’t be reuniting with him, though. She hopes to marry money instead.
Ida’s gullibility makes her an odd choice for Hale’s protector. Still, he sees in her blooming body his best chance for survival. This is the first time that Greene makes it abundantly clear that Hale is both sexually attracted to Ida and in desperate need of a mother figure to shelter him from danger. Blissfully unaware of Hale’s dire circumstances, Ida makes idle, drunken chit chat about her ex-husband and her wish to elevate herself through marriage to a rich man. Hale, while prideful of his job, is not a rich man.
Ida asks Hale his name and he tells her it’s Fred even though it’s really Charles. Ever since he was young, Hale was attracted to secrecy even though, he admits now, it’s that attraction that has landed him in trouble now. They talk a bit about horses, and Hale suggests Ida put her money on Black Boy in the four o’clock race. She says she never ignores a good tip, even though Black Boy is running under 20 to one odds. Hale asks Ida to come with him into town, but she talks him into taking a ride around the Palace Pier instead. She wants to make a day of fun out of it, and in the cab Hale kisses her, spotting Cubitt’s car in the rearview mirror. Ida worries that Hale is sick, and he tells her that doctors have given him a death sentence.
It is not only pride that damns Hale from the start; it is his desire for secrecy. There is no compelling reason for him to give Ida a pseudonym. It does him no good and, in fact, it only confuses things later when Ida tries to solve his murder. Like his unwillingness to seek help from a police officer, his telling Ida that his name is Fred and his knowledge of horse racing suggest that Hale is not necessarily the most ethical journalist. The death sentence he jokingly mentions turns out to be true, but not due to illness.
Ida says sick men are always glomming on to her; it must be her motherly looks. Then she questions Hale’s claims further and he admits he’s not ill. They get out of the cab in the middle of a crowd gathered around a huckster who’s selling watches. Ida wants money from Hale so she can duck into the women’s bathroom and wash herself. Hale is desperate for her to stay by his side, but he relents, and Ida, touched by what she assumes is Hale’s romantic attachment to her, takes a quick shower. When she emerges from the lavatory four minutes later, Hale is gone. She supposes he, too, is in the bathroom, and she buys a watch from the street vendor, thinking she’ll bet the change on Black Boy in honor of Fred. It is one in the afternoon.
The watches symbolize Hale’s sense of impending doom, and his fight against the clock. Hale is too proud to admit to Ida that he needs her to stay by his side so that he is not left vulnerable to Pinkie and his gang, and Ida is too wrapped up in her own world to see that she is in the company of a genuinely desperate man.