MARKET DAY. THE TOWN was busy although there were far fewer visitors about now that the school holidays were over and September was more than halfway through. Tourists jostled to examine the contents of the stalls set up on the quay whilst others made for the café with its tables placed beneath bright umbrellas. It was quite warm enough to sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee in the sunshine.
Isobel Stangate shifted her weight from one foot to the other and held her collecting tin a little higher. She had positioned herself outside Boots the chemist in a cunning attempt to intercept shoppers as they crossed the road from the car park opposite—and she had not been unsuccessful. She glanced at her watch and fixed her eye meaningly upon a young man who stood on the pavement, waiting to cross. He looked quickly away from her purposeful gaze and, in an attempt to avoid her altogether, sheered off hastily across the road, nearly falling beneath the wheels of a passing car. The driver shouted imprecations and Isobel grinned maliciously as the young man fled, his ears burning with embarrassment.
Years of being dragooned into helping on flag days had given Isobel a cynical outlook. She knew that ladies of a certain age who dressed in navy blue would always put something into the tin. They had stood too often themselves, smiling hopefully and shaking collecting boxes encouragingly, to ignore a fellow sufferer. Young mothers generally allowed their offspring to put a few pennies into the slot and smiled tolerantly as the sticker was placed somewhere upon the child’s person. Expensively dressed visitors stared at her brazenly, either passing by without a qualm—or an offering—or pausing to tell her that they wished someone would start up a charity on their behalf. The locals would sigh and say, ‘What is it this time?’ as they felt in a pocket or scrabbled for a purse, whilst the lonely ones seized the opportunity for a chat. There were those who would ostentatiously peer at the charity’s name on the box and then shake their heads, frowning a little, as if to say, ‘Oh, no. I couldn’t contribute to that.’
Isobel, who was a soft touch and could be relied upon to respond to a cry for help from a busy organiser or committee member, knew them all. She smiled down at a tiny elderly lady, wrinkled and wizened as a nut, who had stopped at her elbow and was peering at the tin whilst struggling to extricate her purse.
‘Always someone ’ere,’ she said complainingly. ‘Ev’ry week. Must think us old age pensioners be made o’ money. ’Tis us what should ’ave a collection.’
‘Couldn’t agree with you more,’ agreed Isobel cheerfully. ‘You get it organised and I’ll come and hold a tin.’
The old woman put ten pence into the box whilst Isobel stuck the paper disc to her ancient jacket.
‘Don’t forget to take it off when you wash your cardigan,’ she said, ‘otherwise the glue will make it go all gungy.’
‘“Devon against Drugs”.’ The old woman snorted, squinting down at her newly adorned chest. ‘’Ow do they afford ’em in the first place? That’s what I want to know! I can’t ‘ardly afford a packet o’ tea. ‘Ow come these kids can afford drugs?’
‘By banging you on the head and stealing your pension,’ said Isobel promptly. She smiled at the woman who unexpectedly grinned back at her.
‘If you’re still ’ere when I come back I’ll bring you out a cuppa,’ she said.
Isobel laughed. ‘I’ll hold you to that,’ she promised. She watched her pass through the swing door into the chemist and suddenly felt depressed. The poor old thing probably couldn’t afford that ten pence. She held the heavy tin invitingly towards a smartly dressed couple who, having parked their brand-new BMW in the car park, had been having coffee at the café on the quay. The woman pretended not to see but her companion smiled patronisingly.
‘There’s too much giving done in this country,’ he told Isobel. ‘Make people stand on their own two feet, that’s what I say. Charity begins at home.’
His wife pulled at his arm, muttering through thin blood-red lips, whilst Isobel suppressed a desire to swing the collecting tin at his smug head. Her depression increased and she looked again at her watch; her two hours were nearly up. She’d promised to stand in for someone at the last moment, agreeing to take the nine-to-eleven stint, and then had woken late and only just made it into Kingsbridge in time to fetch her tin and sheaf of stickers. Having missed breakfast she longed for a cup of coffee and had every intention of stopping off at the Harbour Bookshop when her stint was over. She knew that Pat Abrehart would probably have the kettle boiling. Pat had offered her a part-time job at the bookshop when Isobel’s lover had left her and her husband had refused to take her back.
Isobel knew how lucky she was to have even a part-time job in these difficult times and looked forward to her two days each week at the bookshop.
She bent down to allow a small boy to put some pennies into her tin, smiled at his mother and decided that she’d had enough. She folded up the remaining sheets of stickers, tucked the collecting tin under her arm and headed for Mill Street.
LATER, FEELING REFRESHED AFTER some coffee and a chat with Pat, she drove out of Kingsbridge and away towards the coast. When Mike had left her, quite callously and suddenly after nearly a year, it had not been the shock that her friends imagined. For several months Isobel had known that she’d made a terrible mistake in leaving Simon; but how to admit it? Everyone—her daughter, her parents, most of her friends—had condemned her for leaving the gentle, loving, caring Simon for the irresponsible rogue that Mike so obviously was. Even now, knowing her mistake, living continually with the results of that mistake, she did not ask herself why she had been such a fool. She knew exactly why. After twenty years in a relationship of the utmost security she had been overwhelmed by utter madness. She was bored with kindness, consideration and safety—and the glitter in Mike’s eyes and his reckless pursuit had swept away her habitual feelings of loyalty and love.
As she turned on to the lane that led out to Start Point she remembered those exciting days. She had become a stranger, not only to her family and friends, but to herself; a different woman whose only desire was for fun and laughter. The sensible Isobel who organised dinner parties and drove Helen to dancing classes vanished as though she had never been. The passion she felt for Mike reduced the love she had for Simon to a pale cold emotion and she was dazzled by the power of her feelings. The world about her and everything in it seemed larger, brighter, louder, happier; to resist was quite impossible.
Isobel, driving now between tall hedges of dusty fading foliage, sighed for the fool she had been. She had thrown away love, respect, contentment, security; she had mistaken the shadow for the substance and now must live with the consequences. Helen, just sixteen, had been mortified by her mother’s behaviour.
‘How can you?’ she’d cried, resisting Isobel’s attempt to draw her close to her, deaf to her explanations. ‘Don’t touch me! It’s disgusting. A woman of your age! How can you do this to Daddy?’ She’d refused to see Isobel, despite even Simon’s attempts to reason with her.
At what point, wondered Isobel, had she realised that, all through those heady days, Simon’s love for her had been like a safety net swinging beneath her as she cavorted on the high wire? Impossible to say. The fever had passed and she had woken one morning thinking of Simon, missing him, wanting him. The game was over but her pride made her hold out a little longer. She went to meet Simon, as she had at intervals, to talk about Helen who still steadfastly refused to see her. Her secret knowledge made the meeting somehow exciting. His continuing love flattered her and she flirted with him just a little, knowing that soon—very soon now—she would make it all up to him. He had watched her, smiling a little, his affection for her still apparent in his eyes. She’d hugged him when they parted and felt his unguarded response with a kind of triumph. Soon, very soon now …
When Mike left it had been almost a relief and she prepared for her return with all the confidence of the Prodigal Son but with none of his humility. Simon had been gentle but adamant. Yes, he loved her; yes, he missed her but he would never be able to trust her again. He was not prepared to risk himself. He listened to her explanations and her pleas but refused to be moved. Knowing that stubbornness was one of his less attractive traits, Isobel withdrew and went to see her mother with whom Helen was spending a few days of half term. Her mother received the news of her proposed return coolly. Her sympathy had been completely with Simon, whom she loved, and her adored granddaughter. Presently Isobel found herself alone with Helen.
‘What did you expect?’ asked her daughter. ‘Did you expect him to fall on his knees and kiss your feet?’
‘No,’ said Isobel wearily—but she knew that she had expected just that. ‘Please, Helen, try to understand. I made a terrible mistake. Can’t you forgive me?’
‘No,’ said Helen baldly. ‘I just feel shame for you. Poor Daddy …’
‘Look!’ cried Isobel. ‘Look! I fell in love with Mike. It was like a kind of madness. An illness. You’re seventeen, Helen. Haven’t you felt like that about a boy? Mad about him one day, gone right off him the next … ?’
She stopped and shook her head hopelessly. Helen was regarding her with scorn.
‘Surely at your age you know the difference between real love and infatuation, don’t you?’ she asked contemptuously.
‘Obviously not.’ Isobel tried to smile. She knew how badly she had hurt her daughter and that Helen’s cruelty was the measure of that hurt. ‘I know now that it was Daddy I loved all along.’
‘That’s your problem,’ said Helen.
Now, two years on, nothing had altered. Isobel changed down into second gear and swung into the track that twisted off from the road and bumped its way down towards the sea. She negotiated the sharp bend to the right, worrying as usual about the car’s suspension, remembering her first visit to this remote, hidden-away cove. She’d seen the advertisement in the Western Morning News when she was wondering where she should go and what she should do. The offer of a small cottage and use of a car in return for cleaning and shopping was too good to refuse and Isobel accepted the conditions and settled in with relief. Simon, it seemed, was prepared to support her but Isobel’s pride rebelled against it. She needed to be independent of him but wanted to stay near Plymouth in case Simon underwent a change of heart. Perhaps his pride needed time to recover. When Helen went off to university Simon sold the Plymouth town house and moved to Modbury. Now he was barely twenty minutes away from Isobel.
The beach opened out fanwise before her. Here the track divided. The left-hand fork ended in an open area behind an old stone house. She drove the Morris Traveller into a dilapidated building built into the rock behind this odd-looking house, which was constructed on three levels and faced out to sea, and, having collected her shopping from the back seat, she followed the track along the back of the beach. Across the small cove from the stone house a tiny cottage perched above a boathouse, backed into the cliff on its small plateau of rock. This had been her home for nearly two years; her wage from her job at the bookshop plus a minute income from the legacy her father had left her just enabled her to survive.
Isobel climbed the rocky steps to her door and went inside. This door, set in the side of the cottage, opened into a small lobby. Opposite the front door was the door into the kitchen, behind which was the bathroom and lavatory. A second door led from the kitchen into the sitting room. The cottage was both cramped and damp but the view from all four windows was more than enough to compensate for these inconveniences. She recalled how she had run up the stairs which rose from the sitting room to the two bedrooms above and how she had gone from room to room, gazing out on to the sea and the cliffs, her worries forgotten, her heartache soothed. She refused to be alarmed by the spectres of damp and cold, of sea mists and gales. This was where she wanted to be. The owner smiled sceptically at Isobel’s delighted ravings and suggested a three-month trial.
As she packed away her shopping Isobel chuckled to herself as she remembered Mathilda Rainbird’s expression. It was, she’d pointed out in her precise old voice, an exceptionally mild and sunny November day. Perhaps Isobel should restrain her excitement until she’d experienced a few weeks of wet weather? Isobel had insisted that she loved the rain. Mathilda inclined her head politely and suggested that Isobel should look over the house which it would be her duty to clean. It was one of the strangest houses she’d ever seen. Each seaward-facing room on all three floors had its own balcony and the views were just as spectacular as those from the cottage. The kitchen-living room and the dining room—now relegated to a storeroom—took up most of the ground floor along with a walk-in larder, a scullery and a lavatory. A solid-fuel Rayburn which, thought Isobel with dismay, must have been with Mrs Noah in the ark, kept this floor warm and dry and helped to heat Mathilda’s bedroom which was directly above it. There was a second big bedroom on the first floor and a bathroom. Above again were the drawing room and a study.
As they toiled from floor to floor, Mathilda gave Isobel a brief history of the place. Her father had bought the three buildings at the end of the nineteenth century. At that time they had belonged to an estate which was being broken up; the cottage had been derelict and the boathouse unused. Her father was an Oxford professor, a botanist who studied the plant communities indigenous to the sea-cliffs of the South-West, and he bought the house for a retreat to be used during the long vacation and as a base from which to pursue his studies. He and Mathilda’s mother had come to love the place and, after Mathilda was born in 1910, the three of them spent as many weeks together as could be spared each year in happy isolation.
Her mother had died of Spanish influenza in the year following the Great War. As soon as she was old enough Mathilda was sent away to school but, each holiday, she and her father returned to the house in the cove. At the end of the Second World War her father suffered a stroke. Mathilda who had worked with him, collating his notes, writing them up and cataloguing his collections, continued to do so and after his death, and with his College’s permission, went on with the great mass of work left to her. Often she undertook similar work for his colleagues and newer research students of the college and so the years passed, calmly and uneventfully.
Now, at eighty-four, she spent a good deal of time reading but, when the weather allowed, she still took out the launch which was kept in the boathouse. Isobel had been alarmed to see her setting off alone for a day’s fishing but she grew accustomed to the sight and to hearing the boat puttering out on those clear moonlit nights when Mathilda was unable to sleep. She was undemanding, self-sufficient and undoubtedly odd but Isobel had grown tremendously fond of her. She seemed indifferent to comfort and, should the fire burn low or go out whilst she was immersed in her book, she would merely wrap herself in the old blanket which was thrown across her chair and go on reading.
Isobel cleaned the house, did the washing and the shopping and kept the Rayburn alight. The coke occupied a shed beside the back door and each morning and evening, whatever the weather, Isobel was to be seen lugging in the scuttle and carrying out the ashes. She could understand that gas or oil might be impracticable, so far as they were from other habitations, but she did tentatively mention that an electric stove might be more convenient.
Mathilda raised her eyebrows and Isobel could almost see the words, ‘For whom?’ forming themselves upon her lips; she began to laugh.
‘Apart from which,’ pointed out Mathilda, exactly as if the exchange had taken place aloud, ‘what should we do when we have a power cut? We have a great many in the winter, you know.’
This was true. When the great south-westerly gales brought the seas thundering into the cove—almost to their very doors—and the ground seemed to shake beneath her feet Isobel was glad to huddle in the big kitchen beside the Rayburn, whilst Mathilda continued to read by the light of one of the many oil lamps which were placed in handy positions around the house. Sometimes, on these occasions, Mathilda would suggest that Isobel stay the night and, tucked up in the second bedroom clutching a hot-water bottle, Isobel would wonder at life’s vagaries that through one foolish action, one terrible mistake, she should be in this undreamed of situation; cut off from her husband and child, with only an old woman for company, listening to the noise of the gale battering against her window.
SECOND TIME AROUND. Copyright © 1998 by Marcia Willett. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.