The glitter of the sun on the waters of the inlet made Daisy blink. Thank heaven the torrential rain had stopped. Perhaps the summer holidays of 1924 were not after all doomed to go down in history as a disaster of record-breaking precipitation. Belinda and Deva were well-behaved girls, but two days cooped up in a boarding-house parlour were enough to strain the best of best behaviour. One more game of Happy Families and Daisy would have run screaming into the downpour and thrown herself off a cliff.
Still, she thought, picking her way across the wet lawn, it would have been much worse if she hadn’t brought Deva to keep her stepdaughter company. The pair had dashed off to the beach after a bare minimum of lunch, leaving Daisy to drink her second cup of coffee in peace.
She reached the knee-high drystone wall surrounding the back garden. The still air was full of flower scents, mingled with a smidgeon of seaweed, fish and tar. Red valerian and creeping toadflax sprouted from every crack and cranny of the wall; the top was a mosaic of gold and silver-green lichen. On the other side, the wall dropped nearly four feet to the grassy track leading from the village up onto the cliffs. Glancing towards the village, Daisy saw Westcombe spreading up the hillside from the quay in a jumble of buildings washed in Mediterranean shades of pink, yellow, white and blue, topped with lichened slate roofs. Here and there a towering palm attested to the mild climate of this sheltered south coast nook.
A man was coming towards her along the path at a jaunty stride, full of vim and vigour. Pleased with himself and the world, Daisy thought.
She placed atop the wall the ancient cushion the landlady had lent her. Sitting down, she pivoted to face the beach, bare legs dangling. With the approaching walker in mind, she tucked her blue cotton skirt—hemlines were scarcely below the knee this year—under her thighs before she turned her attention back to the view.
Overhead, seagulls wheeled, crying, and a few bobbed on the ripples. A pair of sailing dinghies slid past, heading for the sea. On the far side of the sparkling water rose a steep wooded slope. Where the inlet narrowed opposite the town, a patch of sand and a wooden landing-stage marked the far end of the ferry crossing. The ferry was halfway across, its oars throwing up little flurries of white like bunches of lace on a blue frock.
Once a schooner-building port, Westcombe was becoming known as a holiday and yachting centre. Now that the rain had stopped, Daisy could see why.
On the other side of the track was a jumble of rocks, grey, black and rusty-red, and then the sandy beach where the girls were building a castle to rival Windsor. They were a study in contrasts, one plump and brown with black hair, in a yellow shirt and red shorts, the other a pale, skinny redhead in green and white. Daisy waved, but they were too intent on their earthworks to notice.
“Hullo!” The walker had reached her perch and stopped, raising his tweed cap to reveal thick sandy hair. “Hullo,” he repeated with a grin which lent charm to an otherwise plain face and conveyed satisfaction with life, himself, and his view of Daisy. “Topping day.”
She couldn’t help responding with a smile. “Lovely. I’d almost given up hope.”
“You’re on holiday?”
Daisy’s mother, the Dowager Lady Dalrymple, would have thrown a fit if she’d seen her daughter chatting with a man to whom she had not been properly introduced. But then, she would have thrown a fit if she’d seen her daughter sitting on a wall overlooking a public footpath. The stranger sounded like a gentleman and was unexceptionably dressed in a tweed jacket and flannels. Though he was tieless, his shirt open at the throat, that was surely excusable at a seaside resort.
“Yes,” said Daisy, “and you?”
“I’m a resident. George Enderby, proprietor of the Schooner Inn, at your service.” He bowed, and looked at her enquiringly.
Daisy wasn’t so far removed from her upbringing as to grant the use of her name to an innkeeper, however gentlemanly, without further acquaintance. “You’ve chosen a very pretty place to live,” she said. “I’ve been admiring the view.”
“So have I.” With a small smile, he kept his gaze on her face.
Though he didn’t glance down, Daisy was suddenly aware of her display of legs. Feeling a blush rising, a Victorian affliction she despised, she willed it away, saying hastily, “One must be able to see for miles from up there.” She gestured up the track. “I’m dying to explore.”
“You shouldn’t go alone. The cliffs are dangerous. I’d be happy to offer my escort.”
Was he trying—in the vulgar parlance—to “get off” with her? “That’s very kind of you, but I think I’ll wait till my husband arrives next weekend.”
The information that she was married did not appear to put him out in the least. “It would be a pity to miss the sunny weather,” he said persuasively. “Another cloudburst may roll in by next weekend. Besides, I’m familiar with the ground. I can make sure you have a wonderful experience.”
“It does seem a pity not to take advantage of the weather. I wonder if the girls would like to go.”
Mr. George Enderby frowned. “The girls?”
“My daughter and her friend.” Smiling, Daisy nodded towards the beach. “They’re having great fun building sandcastles, but … Oh, who is that?”
An extraordinary figure was approaching Belinda and Deva. Around its knees flapped a reddish skirt. Below this, tattered breeches reached to mid-calf, leaving feet and ankles bare. The upper half of this apparition was clad in a sheepskin jerkin over a collarless man’s shirt, the ragged tail of which fluttered behind. A straw boater with a drooping brim and a hole in the crown completed the picture.
The scarecrow trudged across the sand, pulling a ramshackle handcart, and stopped beside the girls.
“Sid!” exclaimed Enderby. Shouting angrily, he stormed off between the rocks down to the beach.
Daisy scrambled to her feet on top of the wall and watched anxiously, debating whether to jump down and follow. Surely Sid would be in an institution if he were dangerous. Was Enderby just taking out on the unfortunate creature his annoyance at being foiled in his pursuit of Daisy? There was something rather theatrical about the whole performance. Enderby was actually shaking his fist now, a gesture she had more often read about than seen except on stage. Perhaps he was putting on a show for her, hoping his defence of the children might coax her to a rendezvous despite husband and daughter.
The girls, who had merely raised their heads when Sid arrived, stood up and backed away as Enderby rushed towards them.
Sid swung round in alarm. He shrank back. Then, to Daisy’s astonishment, he turned his back on his assailant, bent down, and peered at him between his legs.
Enderby stopped dead, apparently stymied by this unconventional manoeuvre. Hands on hips, he stared for a moment. Perhaps he realized he would look an absolute ass shouting and shaking his fist at a beachcomber’s bottom, because he feinted a kick, then, with a disconsolate shrug, stalked away towards the hillside track.
Sid seemed to have come up with his own peculiar version of the soft answer that turneth away wrath.
Daisy missed the beginning of the next scene as she carefully lowered herself to the path. At three months pregnant, she was full of energy but inclined to move with caution. When she was again able to look towards the beach, Sid was holding out something to Belinda.
Whatever it was, Bel took it with a smile. Sid crouched and pointed at the highest tower of the castle. By then, Daisy was close enough to see that the object was a long, grey and white gull’s feather. Bel stuck it in the top of the tower and Sid clapped his hands. Turning to his cart, he rummaged around in it.
The cart was a ramshackle construction of weathered lumber, knocked together with rusty nails, on a rickety perambulator chassis. As Daisy approached, she saw that it was decorated with scraps of ribbon, sea-worn coloured glass, shells, feathers and silver paper. The girls came nearer to admire it, and Belinda saw Daisy.
“Look, Mummy, hasn’t he made it pretty?”
Sid looked round with a frightened face. Close to, he was, if anything, even less prepossessing than from a distance. His chin was stubbled, his hair shaggy, his eyebrows wild. The skirt Daisy had observed appeared to be a woman’s red flannel petticoat hitched up under his armpits, perhaps to cover the deficiencies in his breeches, the visible parts of which were splitting at the seams. But he did not smell, the blue eyes beneath the unkempt eyebrows were timid and childlike, and his hat bore a wreath of daisies and pink thrift.
Daisy smiled at him. “Hullo, Sid.”
“He can’t talk, Mrs. Fletcher,” said Deva importantly. “He just makes noises when he tries. Is he an idiot?”
The beachcomber shook his head, his mouth working.
“No,” said Belinda. “Think how clever he was, Deva, to get rid of that shouting man so quickly.”
The girls looked at each other and both bent down to stare at Daisy between their legs, giggling.
“That’s enough of that, you two,” Daisy said, afraid they would upset him. “You can both speak perfectly well. How nicely you have decorated your cart, Sid.”
He stood back and regarded his handiwork with some pride, nodding vigorously. Then he delved again into the mixture of flotsam, jetsam, kelp, driftwood, and tarry lumps of cork he had collected. He came up with a greenish glass ball, nearly a foot in diameter. This he held out to Daisy.
“Oh, that’s a fisherman’s float, isn’t it? What a wonderful find.”
Sid pointed to himself, then to the ball, then to Daisy.
“He means it’s a present, Mummy. That’s what he did when he gave us the feather for a flag for our castle. Isn’t it, Mr. Sid? Is it a present for my mummy?”
He nodded solemnly. Daisy took the ball, with some reluctance as she suspected he could probably sell it and he certainly looked in need of cash.
“Thank you, Sid. How very kind of you. We’ll put it on the mantelpiece at home, Bel.”
Sid shook his head. His expressive hands outlined a square in the air, delineated crosspieces, gestured at the sun. Widespread fingers became sunlight shining through his imaginary window onto the ball.
“Put it on the windowsill,” Deva interpreted, “so that the sun shines through it.”
The beachcomber’s eager nod was accompanied by a grin that revealed several missing teeth. He turned back to the cart. Dismayed, Daisy envisioned a flood of gifts, each more inappropriate than the last, and Sid following them about for the rest of the holiday. Harmless as he seemed, she wouldn’t be happy leaving the girls alone with him about. What had she got herself involved in now?
But he brought out a piece of fishing net and with a few quick knots fashioned a bag to carry the glass ball. Renewed thanks and admiration of his cleverness made him bashful. Ducking his head, he picked up the shafts of the cart and trudged away towards the far end of the beach.
Belinda looked after him, her freckled face worried. “He’s very poor, isn’t he, Mummy? Do you think he’d like a new hat? I’ve got all my pocket-money that I saved.”
“I’ll think about it, darling. We don’t want to embarrass him. What a marvellous castle you’ve built. Are you still working on it, or shall we go for a walk?”
“You said we had to wait for you to come before we go in the water.”
“Now you are here, Mrs. Fletcher, may we bathe?”
“Yes, do, and I’ll come and paddle.”
Bel and Deva whipped off their shorts and shirts and sunbonnets, and in their bathing suits dashed into the water, splashing and squealing. Leaving her sandals and the glass ball with their clothes and towels, Daisy followed. Here in the inlet, protected from the open sea, the waves were scarcely more than ripples. Each swirled a few feet up the beach, then withdrew with a soft suss-suss-suss. Venturing in up to her ankles, she realized why the girls were squealing: the chill was quite a shock at first.
Drawn by the sunshine, several other families had walked to the beach from the village by the time the girls had had enough and came out shivering, Belinda bluish with cold.
“In India, the sea is warm,” said Deva as Daisy enveloped her in a towel.
“How do you know?” Belinda asked. “You were only little when you came to England.”
“My ayah told me.” Deva’s Indian nursemaid was an oft-quoted authority.
“You’d better run up to the house and get dressed.”
“Oh no, Mummy, there’s a little boy looking at our castle. He might spoil it if we go. We’ll just put on our things over our costumes.”
In no time they were organizing a team of younger children to reinforce the construction with stones and rush about with buckets to fill the moat. Daisy returned to the garden wall to fetch her book and the cushion.
The landlady, Mrs. Anstruther, was in the garden cutting flowers. She was not at all what Daisy—who admittedly had little experience of the breed—would have expected of a seaside boarding-house landlady. She ought to be middle-aged and either plump and motherly or hatchet-faced and tyrannical. Instead, she was in her early thirties, just a few years older than Daisy, rather too thin even for the fashionable no-bosom, no-bottom look, with pleasing if not beautiful features and dark curly hair. Though hospitable, she was diffident almost to the point of aloofness.
“Oh, you startled me!” she exclaimed as Daisy’s head appeared above the wall. “I’m just picking dahlias for the dining room.” She said this with a tinge of defensiveness, as if Daisy might accuse her of neglecting the making of beds or the preparation of tea. No doubt she had suffered from faultfinders in the past.
“Food always tastes better with flowers on the table,” said Daisy. “I was just going to take my book and your cushion down to the beach, but since you’re out here, there’s something I’d like to consult you about, if I may?”
“Of course.” Mrs. Anstruther came towards the wall. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ll come up.” Even if it weren’t for the virtual certainty of a crick in the neck, the questions Daisy wanted to ask were not the sort to be bandied about on a public footpath. She went along to the steps and ascended more conventionally than she had come down.
Mrs. Anstruther met her at the top of the steps, looking anxious. “Is something the matter, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Not at all. I just want your advice. The girls and I have just made the acquaintance of a rather curious character, a beachcomber …”
“Oh, that’d be Sid.” Her face cleared. “He’s quite harmless. Simple, and a mute, as you’ll have discovered, but he’s a gentle soul. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Good, that was my impression. He gave me this glass ball.”
“You must have made quite a hit with him! He can sell those at the newsagents’ for a bob or two apiece. People buy them as souvenirs.”
“Oh dear, I was afraid of that. And afraid he’d be offended if I offered to pay him.”
“I couldn’t say.”
“No, well, we’ll work out something. I’m glad to know I needn’t worry about the girls meeting him when I’m not with them. I was a bit concerned because of the way Mr. Enderby rushed down … Are you all right?”
Mrs. Anstruther had turned pale, but she flushed as she answered, “Yes, thanks. Just for a moment I … It must have been because I was stooping in the sun.”
“I should think you’d better wear a hat.”
“Yes. Silly of me. You were saying … about Mr. Enderby?”
“I was sitting here on the wall talking to him, and when he saw Sid stopping by the girls, he rushed off, yelling at him. I must say, I was rather taken with Sid’s response.”
“He bent down and looked through his legs?” Mrs. Anstruther smiled faintly. “He doesn’t do it often, but it always has the same disarming effect. I dare say he doesn’t need to do it often, because people liable to berate him are so disconcerted the first time that they rarely try again.”
“No doubt. It certainly sent Mr. Enderby packing, so I couldn’t believe the girls were in any real danger. I wanted to ask you about Enderby, too. If he’s a friend of yours, I hope you don’t mind my saying that he seems to consider himself quite a Don Juan.”
“He’s no friend of mine.” Mrs. Anstruther’s light tone failed to conceal a hint of bitterness.
“I suppose it’s all talk? All bluff and bluster?”
“You stay away from George Enderby. Don’t let him cozen you.
That’s my advice, for what it’s worth. Now I’d better be getting on, Mrs. Fletcher, or your tea won’t be ready for you. Would you like a deck-chair for the beach? There’s some in the shed, there. The girl can carry one down for you.”
“Thanks, I’ll manage it myself. And thanks for the advice.”
Returning to the beach with her book in her hand and a deck-chair under the other arm, Daisy told herself that any relationship—past or present—between Enderby and Mrs. Anstruther was none of her business. But curiosity was her besetting sin, and she couldn’t help wondering whether Mrs. Anstruther was in fact a widow, as she had assumed. Or was there a Mr. Anstruther waiting in the wings whom she simply hadn’t met?
At four o’clock, the holiday-makers on the beach started unpacking picnics or heading back to their lodgings for tea. Daisy called the girls.
“Just five minutes, Mummy. The big tower’s starting to sag! We’ve got to shore it up.”
“No, right now. I didn’t think to ask for a picnic, so you have to wash off the sand and put on frocks. Come on.” She flattened the green and red-striped deck-chair, as usual getting its wooden frame the wrong way round. “Bother, these look so simple but I always manage to get them tied in knots.”
“We’ll carry it for you.”
“Let’s pretend it’s a palanquin,” Deva suggested, as they each picked up one end.
“What’s a palanquin?”
“My ayah says it’s a sort of chair with poles for carrying a maharanee.”
“What’s a maharanee?”
“A sort of queen. Mrs. Fletcher, you can be the maharanee and we’ll carry you.”
“Gosh, no, I’m much too heavy. Besides, it would be bound to fold up with me inside, and pinch your fingers, too.”
“We’ll carry the towels and buckets and spades on it. And your book, Mummy.”
“Not likely, it’d get all damp and sandy.”
Somehow they made it through the rocks and up the steps without spilling off the buckets and spades more than a couple of times. When they reached the shed, Daisy said, “Thank you. Now I’ll put it away while you run up and change. Go in the back way, we don’t want to leave sand all over the front hall.”
The girls scampered off. The deck-chair disposed of, Daisy followed them through the back door, standing open to the warm air. The passage led to the foot of the stairs, where it widened into the front hall. There Daisy saw Mrs. Anstruther standing by the hall table, a letter in her hand, a look of shock on her white face.
“What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do?”
The landlady averted her face. “The post only just came,” she said in a flat voice, picking up another letter from the table. “The van broke down on the way from Abbotsford. Here’s one for you.”
“Oh, good. Thank you. But are you all right? I’m afraid you’ve had bad news.”
She shook her head, closing her eyes and swallowing. “No, not at all. My husband is coming home.”
“You weren’t expecting him to?”
“Oh, yes, but Peter’s in the Navy, a warrant officer, a gunner. He’s often gone for months and one can never be sure just when … His ship’s in the Nore. He’ll be here on Saturday. I’m just afraid …”
Daisy waited in silent sympathy.
“I’m afraid of what he’ll do when he finds out about George Enderby!”
FALL OF A PHILANDERER. Copyright © 2005 by Carola Dunn.