The morning London traffic screeched past in a constant stream of red buses, black taxis and crazy pedestrians courting death as they sprinted precariously between speeding vehicles to reach the other side.
What was she doing at Paddington Station!
Sue pushed the luggage carrier towards Platform 3 where the Penzance Express was due to depart in twenty minutes. She chose a seat close to the restaurant car. Exhaustion had crept upon her and she longed to close her eyes but was afraid – – afraid that if she slept the nightmare would return.
Opening her eyes, she felt the movement of the train rocking her gently while beyond the window the countryside sped past, fresh and green as only it can be in England in Spring. Glancing at her watch she realised that she had been asleep for two hours. When her eyes opened again, they focused on the scenic view below her as the express raced across theTamar Bridge and down into Cornwall.
Her hands were clenched tightly, her fingernails biting into her palms. There was no reason for the knot of fear that filled her throat but still it persisted. Yet again, her mind re-ran her nightmare until she was gasping in fear as the train pulled into the next station. Jumping up she grabbed at her bag and coat jostling the man in front. He turned to look at her. “You getting off?” Wild eyed, Sue tugged frantically at her cases until he came to assist her. Then she was down on the platform and the train was sliding past, leaving her behind
. Where was she?
Her tousled blonde mane lifted in the midday breeze and she pushed it back from her face. An old man seated on the bench, nodded with a grin.
Liam would have found her brief note by now. Would he be surprised to find her gone? He would probably celebrate by moving in Allie!
Why on earth had she come to Cornwall? She knew nobody in Cornwall. Had never even been here before! Perhaps it was the thought of facing her family and friends, admitting it was “all over”. Most of them had tried to dissuade her from going with him five years ago because they had likened Liam to the rock stars they read about in the tabloids. But Liam Meredith was not like any of those. He was a one-off.
Although her bruises would fade, the truth never would. He had hit her, more than once.
Sue moved towards the old man on the bench. “Excuse me – is there a car rental office nearby?”
An hour later, sitting behind the steering wheel of a silver coloured Mini, her luggage stored in the small trunk of the car, Sue headed north, resolutely steering the car along a main road towards a junction of narrow lanes. She felt the tension slipping away as the countryside grew more rugged and more beautiful. Convinced now that she had been right to get away, she settled back. She needed a complete break, and Cornwall’s special beauty was beginning its therapeutic work.
Village followed village, slipping by in the warm sunshine. An occasional farm stretched wide in great patterns of rust coloured earth, and bright yellow gorse filtered the hills. Up ahead the signpost pointed to Newquay. The Atlantic Ocean was close by separating her from her past.
Turning the Mini away from Newquay, she drove inland, keeping the sea to her left, below the cliffs. She drove now with a new assurance.
Soon the roads were little more than winding lanes leading into tiny hamlets. She felt herself smiling, the earlier frowns gone. Stopping the car, she stepped out into the bright sunshine enjoying the warmth of the April sun spreading comfortingly across her back.
The quiet lane led to another junction where on each corner stood a cottage. The road sign read: “Fourathome” and it was some seconds before the significence reached her: “Four-at-home!” Her laughter lingered as she consulted the wooden signpost. Each of the four arms carried a name: St. Merryn. 5m. Port Isaac. 5m. Rock. 20m. and Portmerryn. 3m.”
She read aloud. “Portmerryn”.
Soon the little car was speeding along the cliff roads, the sparkling sea far below. Following the cliff road down the slight decline she came unexpectedly upon Portmerryn. Travelling down the hill, passing scattered cottages with granite and slate roofs; some whitewashed, others a pale pink, edged by pretty gardens, she passed more cottages and then the elegant spire of the parish church besides which stood two elegant Georgian houses.
The road curved gently and more tiny cottages leaned unevenly upon the cobbled road. Sue gazed about in delight, her heart racing. She felt excited.
On down the hill and past the public house, the Merryn Star, standing solid on its predominant position at the corner. The tiny lanes leading off the main road were hilly and cobbled. Perhaps she had wandered into a movie of days gone by when smugglers roamed these same lanes. Sue half expected to see one any moment now and day dreamed the man in his tight breeches and loose shirt with the wide leather belt encircling his trim waist. His hair windblown from the sea and his face … .
The tractor came around the corner heading straight for her, and she stamped hard on the brake. The farmer, yelled at her, with an angry glare, before edging past. Shaken by the near collision, she drove slowly down around the curve, conscious of the sea as it swam away to her right where glimpses of its bright water sparkled through the trees and stone walls separating the far spread cottages.
Life was lazily about in the village of Portmerryn. Two women stood chatting outside the tiny general stores. A dog came running alongside the car, barking furiously, its hackles on end. Looking towards the pretty pink-washed post office on the corner, she struggled to recapture some chink of memory teasing her like a half forgotten dream as the sun momentarily blinded her. Shielding her eyes from the glare, Sue saw ahead the old stone quay built of ages-old granite and she drove into the sun, along the approach. Up against the harbour wall, was anchored a short distance away, gently lopping on the water a massive ship. A beautiful vessel painted a bright green, with tall masts, their sails secured, the breeze gently stirring the pennant fluttering from the tallest mast. The sun bedazzled her vision with a kaleidoscope of colours so that she braked abruptly to avoid crashing into the harbour wall.
The Inn sat on the edge of the quay, giant granite blocks and glass windows, a heavy wooden door with rusty hinges and a iron ring handle which wore the look of ages past. Illogically she expected the windows on the ground floor to look into the dark and cool taproom. But today it served as a restaurant. Above the wooden door creaked a sign, the picture long faded of fishermen dragging bulging nets depicting a scene from another time. The bold black letters spelt out FISHERMEN’S REST.
Some of Portmerryn’s older male residents gathered down at the edge, looking her way, their weathered faces bearing the familiar blunt curiosity of the native Cornish. At the rear of the Inn, the steps leading down into the water, stone steps, hundreds of years old, were misshapen and worn. The lower steps barely above water level, covered with slime.
Retracing her steps around the Inn she approached the heavy door. It was closed but knocking on its surface, her knuckles relished the feel of the wood. She tugged at the handbell hanging rustily against the wall. Bending, she peered in through one of the lower windows at the bare tables and benches. There was a movement at the back of the room. A man was coming to the door.
Sue smiled. “I need a room …”.
“But you do rent rooms” she insisted, still smiling. The man’s reddish hair and beard were unkempt. “It’s not the season yet”.
“I need a room and this is an Inn. It says so right here …” pointing to the formal tariff charges nailed to the wall. “I can be very quiet”. Sue was attempting to appeal to the man’s sense of humour but her five years in Canada had coloured her accent and he practically bristled at her. “Americans don’t know how to be quiet”. His thickset shape clothed in a black sweater and scruffy jeans, remained squarely in the doorway.
“But I am not American. I’m English and I’ll probably faint unless I can find somewhere to rest. Can you recommend an alternative hotel?”
It was true.She was pale and weary and her green eyes were red rimmed and heavily shadowed and there were faint bruises showing through her make-up. Reluctantly he moved aside, his eyes suspicious. Stepping into the sudden chill of the darkened room she was overcome once more with the sense of familiarity which had invaded her since arriving in Portmerryn. There was no need for her to look around the room. She already knew the low beams straddling the ceiling held fishing nets and lobster pots were tied to the far corner of the room. Glancing up at the lantern above her head she felt strangely at odds with herself, as though another her stood apart, watching from the top of the stairs.
He went behind the bar where a well stocked selection of bottles lined the wooden shelves and pulled out the Visitors Book. “Been ill, have you?”
Taken by surprise Sue turned. “Ill? …” she paused “I’m just tired”
“I’m Sue “, she wrote her parents address. “What does one call you? Landlord?” Her eyes twinkled at him and he submitted. “PEVERELL. Colin Peverell, and the missus is Velda. She does the cooking. You’ll find it very quiet here. If its a rest you’re after …” candidly adding “and it looks as if you are. Portmerryn be the place.”
He was still staring at her. “What brings you to Portmerryn?”
Sue mused that she had probably fallen into a ‘hidden village’ from another age. Perhaps another Brigadoon, like the Hollywood musical in which Gene Kelly discovers the village which only comes to life every hundred years. Had she found her own Brigadoon? Colin Peverell certainly would do little to help the tourist trade in Portmerryn.
Easing herself up onto a bar stool she pushed her bag onto the bar. “I just drove north, followed my nose, and this is where I landed. It’s very pretty.”
Colin Peverell handed her a key. “I’ll show you the room. It’s not very big but it does look out at the harbour and the cliffs.”
Following Peverell across the floor, she paused, looking back at the room now used as a restaurant. For an instant, she imagined how it must have been in another time with oil lamps swinging from the beams and heavy pewter tankards on the tables.Shadows were becoming figures and while Sue’s eyes tried to focus more clearly, Peverell frowned. “You feeling ok?”
Maybe she was cracking up. Forcing a bright smile, she nodded.
Colin Peverell climbed the stairs ahead of her “We don’t get many guests here, even in summer. Portmerryn is mostly unknown to the tourist trade and we like to keep it that way”
The narrow stairs curved up to the landing where Sue turned towards the door left of the stairs. Peverell corrected her. “That’s the store room. Velda keeps the linen in there. This is your room”
It was as he had warned, small and basic. The double bed covered by a colourful patchwork quilt, and a set of drawers and a mirror screwed to the wall served as dressing table. Sue loved the rocking chair in the corner. Pulling open the cupboard door she checked for space. Most of her clothes remained in Toronto. Peverell was asking . “Where’s your luggage?”.
“There are two cases in my car. I’ll show you”. But he shook his head. “Yours’ll be the only foreigner out there.”
Looking out from her bedroom window was like taking a long cool drink; immediately refreshing, and she stood for a long time absorbing the beauty and tranquillity of the scene outside. Down on the quay, a fishing trawler was preparing to leave while villagers watched as they must have watched zillions of times before.
There was no sign of the big green ship.
Later, descending the narrow curved stairs, she was confronted by a sea of faces lifted towards her. Peverell was busy behind the bar but the cooking smells from the kitchen were appetizing. A voice advised her to try the lemon sole. ” I recommend it”. The Cornish voice belonged to a dark haired young man with cornflower blue eyes. He was sitting with two other fishermen, all similarly attired in navy roll neck sweaters and oil skin leggings. She hesitated, her fingers curled around the hard round knob of the banister while Blue Eyes repeated. “I personally vouch for it”. He grinned cheekily. “I delivered it earlier – fresh from the deep ocean.”
Choosing a table by the window she concentrated on the view outside. What she had thought was a fishing boat departing had obviously been one arriving.
The door at the far end of the room opened and a female came out carrying various plates which she began distributing to her customers. Velda Peverell wore her fair hair coiled on her neck and a cotton smock over dark trousers. She was pregnant. “Would you like to eat now?”.
“The Lemon Sole has been highly recommended”.
Velda smiled. “You mustn’t pay too much attention to Dave. He’s full of chat but for once he’s right..’
Velda Peverell swiftly passed a wet cloth over the already clean surface of the wooden table before returning to the kitchen.
Cleaning off her first meal in hours, Sue washed it down with a mug of excellent coffee.
The room was emptying. It was almost four-thirty and Dave was preparing to leave. Stopping by her table, he grinned. “Was I right?”
“You were right” she conceded. Bronzed by the sea air, he wore the air of youthful arrogance, sure of his place among the women of the world. Sue guessed he probably elected himself the village Casanova and whenever some unsuspecting tourist appeared, he became her champion for the brief spell spent at Portmerryn. He grinned. “I’m really shy, y’know”.
Sue tried not to laugh. “I can tell”.
One of the fishermen called out to him. Dave grinned at her. “Maybe I’ll see you later”. Sue was flirting with him and enjoying every silly moment. Dave cocked his dark head and grinned his cheeky grin before running after his friends.
Velda slipped in opposite her, manouvering her swollen body with difficulty, before heaving a great sigh as she leant back against the wooden back rest. The fresh coffee steamed before them.
“When Colin says you look like you need feeding up, I think about all this” and her hands clasped her swollen belly. “And I wish I still looked as if I needed a good meal too”.
“How long now?” asked Sue.
Sue noted Velda’s accent. “You’re not from Cornwall?”
Velda took a swallow of coffee. ‘I met Colin at an auction in Birmingham.’
That was five years ago. Now she was carrying their second child.
“Jamie’s away with Colin’s parents. I needed the rest” and laughed “He’s a holy terror. He’s just three”. But her voice held all the love of a mother regardless of the harsh words. Sue mentally dallied with Velda’s confidences: five years ago Velda had married Colin Peverell; five years ago Sue had chosen to live with Liam. Same difference, she silenty scoffed. The Peverells had a son and a new baby on the way. Sue and Liam had only a past, no future at all.
The late afternoon drifted about her in a lazy lull of silence except for the gentle murmur of the water as the tide eased in over the breakers and pebbles, slapping against the harbour walls. Seated on the Inn steps, Sue lifted her head, studying the steep cliffs for the first time. Below the cliffs, the beach silently waited for the tide’s flood. Further back, nearer to the rocks, a small lone boat was beached, a jagged hole in her side. Occasionally a human sound disturbed the serenity of the afternoon; a car engine spurting into life, a child’s voice shouting out in play, a dog barking. It all seemed far removed from where she sat on the stone steps. Her conversation with Velda had disturbed her, forcing her to face facts about herself. She missed Liam. These past three days were another segment of the charade. The truth was she was not as sophisticated as she believed but she had to face the truth. Liam and she had come to the end of their particular road. It was over. Finished.
Determined to shake off this dismal mood, she stood up. The prettiness of the village invited her to walk there so leaving the quay and the Inn behind, she set off along the main road, the same road she had driven earlier. Passing the sloping cottages and the church of St. Petroc, she paused to read the church notices before turning off the main road to follow a winding and cobbled lane as it rose and fell against a hedgerow of green, finally coming to a dead end. A large notice was nailed to the even larger gate:
and printed beneath in tiny letters: Rosmerryn Estate. The gate swung back with a creaking whine. The wooded glen of trees formed a canopy over her head, and the air was rich with an exotic perfume from an abundance of blooms, but underfoot it was thick with bracken and overgrown weeds.
The footpath led back to the beach they called the Golva. Pushing aside the hanging branches and stooping to avoid scratches and cuts, she moved through the wood enjoying the smell of earth and foliage and the rich perfume of the flowers as she passed close, touching their petals. It grew dark in their shade as she climbed higher heading for the cliffs. Her heart pumped with anticipation. Soon she came to another fence and just as she would have pushed open the old gate, a sound behind startled her and she twisted about. Surely that had been a footfall, snapping a twig perhaps? Turning full circle she scowled at her fanciful thoughts before returning to the gate only to discover this time the rusty lock would not give. As she fought to free it, she felt a touch on her bare arm. The slightest touch, like a feather brushing her skin, but it was enough to send shivers along her spine, lifting the hair on her skin. A mist of flies hovered close. It had been a leaf falling against her, she told herself. Still determined to cross the fence she began to climb over when a shout from behind startled her into losing her balance. She tottered and fell, crashing back into the bracken, the nettles stabbing painfully at her flesh, dragging screams from her throat, accompanied by vibrant cursing of a manner well taught by Liam Meredith.
“Now that be really ladylike”.
The sarcasm came from above her. Rubbing at the red spots already erupting on her skin, she snapped. “Well, don’t just stand there. Help me”. Dave pulled her to her feet, laughing at her discomfort. “What you doing up here?”
Brushing the moss and dirt from her legs, still rubbing at the nettle stings, she muttered.” What does it look like”.
She was furious. “You scared the hell outta me creeping around like that. I might have broken my neck.’ Then. ‘Are you following me?” The young fishermen chuckled. ” No! I’m not following you and you listen to me. That gate be there for a purpose. It be dangerous back there. Had you gone wandering about more’s the chance you’d have killed yourself. So you see, I saved your neck”
“Why’s it so dangerous” she scowled, still angry. Dave kicked at the old fence. “That’s the old Estate back there. Once past this gate you’re out on the cliffs. There’s been a lot of rock falls and the cliffs are crumbling along the edge. Nobody goes there anymore. Nothing to see but trees and some old ruins. You see this notice …”
Any persons found past this notice will be
prosecuted. All land hereafter is DANGEROUS
Sue’s nose wrinkled obstinately. “I like looking at ruins”
“So go up the Cliff Road. Its 2 miles further but a lot safer”.
Dave turned, searching for someone or something.
“Anyway, what are you doing up here?” Sue was thinking of the earlier sounds and the feeling of being watched.
“Just walking, with Tallie”.
“Tallie?”. Sue continued to rub at the sore red spots on her arms.
“My dog”, he gave a low whistle and a large Collie appeared through the trees. Sue patted the dog. So this had been the soft footfall she had heard.
“It’s getting late. It’ll be dark up here in half hour. Come on, I’ll walk back with you” Sue glanced back at the forbidden path. “What was it? Back there, I mean?”.
“That’s the original footpath from the big house down to the village.” He glanced at her. “You really interested in all this ancient rubbish?”
“Yes, I am.” she replied curtly, following him back through the trees.
“You should talk to ol’ Tom then. He loves a good yarn”. Dave grinned. “You’ll find him every night up-the-hill. Some reckon he’s as daft as a brush. Buy him a pint and he’ll tell you all you want to know about this village. His family’s been part of Portmerryn for hundreds of years. He be over ninety himself”.
“And what’s up-the-hill?”.
“The pub” Dave chuckled. “That’s up-the-hill. The Merryn Star. It’s on the corner. You can’t miss it”.
He offered to introduce her to the old villager if she met him at the pub later. Then with Tallie at his heels he left her at the bend in the road.
High above, the sea gulls perched on cottage roofs waiting for the fish to come home. She stood, watching their graceful flight, their wings spread, gliding lanquidly over the waves, in balletic motion, close enough to dip unexpectedly, before taking off again. Moving closer to the water’s edge she stared down at where it rippled against the stones. Pebbles sparkled through the water mesmerising her.
Suddenly, the tranquillity of earlier disappeared. Scenes from her nightmare returned to fill her mind.
Plans of talking to Tom at the Merryn Star were postponed when she developed a violent headache. Exhausted from the flight from Toronto and the sleepness nights preceding her departure, it all seemed to hit her at once and she retired to bed before darkness fell.
It was dawn when the voices below her window dragged her from a deep sleep. Slipping from the bed she pushed out the small window.
Down on the quay a group of fishermen were busy in the mist and damp. It was difficult to see what was going on. Bulky shapes became three men carrying a stretcher with another lying unconscious upon it. She could see his bandages and the bright red stains and she recognised the green ship.
Dave and his crew must have gone out again during the night and now one of the men was badly injured. They carried the wounded man beneath her window but their voices were muted, incomprehensible.
Suddenly a loud ringing startled her so that she almost toppled out of the window. The confusion below forgotten, she rushed to still the Mickey Mouse alarm clock. It was always going off either too early or too late. She frequently threatened to throw it away but Liam had given it to her a long time ago for a joke and she could not bear to part with it.
The rain began before breakfast.
“I was hoping to walk along the cliffs”, Sue complained good naturedly to Velda who was preparing breakfast for the early customers. Colin brought her a mug of coffee “Feeling more rested this morning, are you?”.
“Hardly” Sue gulped at the coffee. “I was up at daybreak watching the activities”. He half smiled but when he refused to comment she set her mug down. “You must have heard all the commotion out there”.
“What that be then?” Colin dropped down opposite her.
“The fishermen. Who was injured?” His frown deepened as he gave a tiny snort of impatience. “What you gabbing about?” It took her only a instant to realise the landlord was serious. Perhaps he was hiding something? Had she stumbled upon a modern day smuggler!
“You didn’t hear all the noise – about five this morning? There were several men down on the quay, coming from Dave’s ship, I think. You know the big green ship? They were carrying someone on a stretcher. The man looked badly hurt. If it hadn’t been so misty I might have seen more”.
Colin shook his head. “I didn’t hear a thing. Anyway, the Crest left last night. She’s not due for hours and she’s painted black and white. You’ll never find a green ship around here. It’s an old Portmerryn superstition. You must have been dreaming.”
Sue opened her mouth to argue then changed her mind.
Maybe Colin was not just the village Inn Keeper.