By Hugh Kellett
It was a day of near flat calm. To the south, he couldn’t discern exactly where sea met sky in the midday sun, a faint haze blurring the dividing line. Behind him to the east, the green pastureland of the Cornish coast, with its occasional bent scrubby trees, fell away abruptly to the sea in a line of harsh cliffs with rugged granite outcrops fingering out into the ocean in a series of headlands. Deep kelp-filled inlets at high tide gave way here to a few tiny beaches at low. But these were hard to access except by boat, and even then the shores were not without danger to the boatman. A series of jagged rocks, normally just submerged, revealed themselves clad in limpets and weed at spring tides, when the water rose and fell nearly two metres more than usual. Certainly, it was difficult water to all but the most knowledgeable, and few ventured. Some locals claimed to know of old smugglers’ ways to reach the heights from sea level when the springs were high via a secret series of ledges and footholds, followed by a final scramble up the gradient where the ‘Danger Keep Off’ signs stood, but this was now something of the stuff of legends, and no one recalled any recent attempt. Shoals of mackerel and pollack patrolled this shoreline, and often the silvery torpedoes of bass. In the darker water, wrasse, in the wrecks, conger. And, several fathoms below, scuttling across the seabed itself, immaculate in camouflage, antennae sweeping like mine detectors, the deep-sea treasure of the ocean – the lobster.
Behind him, around the harbour, clustered the village of white-washed cottages, the church-cum-lighthouse and a few grander homes that clung to the hillside. Brightly coloured boats lay still at their moorings and rusting tractors dozed on the beach, ready to drag up the smaller vessels on to the hard-standing.
His own cottage, with its new balcony over the sea that he had built himself, stood somewhat apart on top of its own cliff, almost sheer. Many newcomers had tried and failed to buy this property but it was not for sale, and he had adapted an estate agent’s sign to this effect, via the addition of the word ‘NOT’, and stuck it outside his gate. It had its own little pathway cut out of the rock that led behind the church and down towards the harbour. Over the years the house had been gradually infused with tales of ghosts and jinxes, smugglers and piracy, as is the way in Cornish outposts. He had lived there, with his father before him, for near 30 years and did little but play up to the myth, with his beard and tousled locks.
Some miles off to the north-east he could just make out the pleasure beaches, today devoid of surf. The lifeguards would have it easy, smoking and flirting.
Dotted about, up to a mile offshore, a series of little black flags hung limp in the air, each attached to a tar-stained buoy, marking the pots. This was his ground and he fished it as his fathers had.
His boat was a simple affair, a crabber, open to the elements with an inboard engine and a mast forward, gaff-rigged with a brown sail for extra impetus and economy. Pots, buoys, flags, ropes, fishing lines and hooks, storage boxes, knives and cutting boards cluttered the deck space, and right forward sat two salt water tanks with lids to receive the main fruits of his labours.
The tiller was the old-fashioned type which suited him, a long piece of beech that you could tie off with a loop of rope in a particular position to hold a course, its handle worn smooth. He leant on it as he had done every day since he could remember, the only sound the thrum of the diesel below him and the pleas of an expectant gull above. He opened up the sea before him like a zip on a silk dress.
Behind him the bell from the church struck one, with that flat sound that smacks of ambiguity, neither joyful nor sad. It wafted to him in small pulses as the surrounding headlands relayed it in turn. The church, that once doubled as a lighthouse had its own secret, now recorded on a plinth outside its gate. How in 1742, in one of the last acts of local enterprise for which the place was known, on a particular evening, the villagers had sighted a French merchantman some five miles offshore, under sail but listing in a gathering storm, and clearly trying grimly to head their way and the safety of port under some sort of flag of distress. As darkness fell and the winds strengthened, the villagers had executed a plan that had been hatched for just such an occasion. Rather than lighting the guiding lamp in the church tower, they had lit a beacon some half mile to the north just above the site of his cottage. The merchantman was drawn like a moth and dashed to pieces on the rocks, after which the beacon was hastily removed. A local enquiry from Truro had concluded that the villagers had done all they could to guide the ship in but that her captain had miscalculated wind and tide in the storm. Bodies and flotsam had washed ashore for a week as the weather eased, and certain citizens of Truro enjoyed French brandy for many months.
He chugged on.
The only thing obviously curious about this little scene of tranquillity was that he wore a bright yellow oilskin, open at the chest and with the sleeves rolled up, but incongruous nevertheless on a day of high temperatures. There was a story too behind this which he would relate to the holiday makers who stood him drinks in the local. Some years back he had been out tending his pots. He was hoisting the sail for the return to harbour, with the engine on slow and the tiller tied off to take him gently to starboard, when a top shackle snapped and the gaff crashed onto him, breaking his arm and hurling him into the sea in a tangle of pots and ropes that threatened to drag him under. For nearly two hours he was trapped, towed half-submerged behind the boat, helpless, in a long curve out to sea. He was saved by chance by a commercial ferry skipper seeing the yellow object aft of the crabber, and the lifeboat was alerted. He was six months in recovery and swore to wear the oilskin whenever he put to sea. And this he did.
His routine was driven by the shipping forecast and the tide-table, which ran like clockwork in his head. So each day, when the tides were right he would don his oilskin and paddle or motor out from the harbour in a tiny dinghy to the moored boat, and head out to sea. The time slipped a few minutes each day, but the process was always the same. This was the way of it: one man, one boat, one life.
But a solitary life, and one that lent itself to long periods of contemplation. To the natural order of things. To man’s place in that order, a floating speck on the surface, part of nature but apart from nature. To his ancient role as hunter-gatherer, trapper, heightened when at night he would rock gently under the stars, and remember the myths of Neptune and Diana. To the faith he should keep with his forebears, the fishing community and the way of life. Of belonging to that community. And how outsiders had infiltrated it, commercialised it, broken it, and put lobster pots as trinkets in their front gardens and hung ships’ bells outside their doors. To how he took drinks from those incomers. How he had married one, broken ranks, outside the community.
It was easy to drift.
He arrived at the first of his marker flags, and began hauling up the pot from the deep.
To the visitor the lobster pot does indeed possess a certain charm. Dotted around on the jetties they add quaint colour to many a seaside scene, their intricate design, the weave of wire and wood, changing little over the centuries. The thing is lowered on a rope to the seabed where it works on deception. The “kitchen” inside is baited with strips of mackerel, and the lobster, having circled the contraption several times with increasing frustration to get at the bait finds the only way in is by climbing on top of it and entering through a broad funnel entrance that gradually narrows, but that can be squeezed through on the way in. Having taken its fill of the morsel the lobster finds itself in a webbed maze of netting and unable to find its way out. Its presence there also offers a false sense of security to other unwary lobsters which make the same mistake.
The first pot was empty and he added a fresh slice of mackerel and returned it. The second bore fruit, two good specimens, but the rest were unusually empty and by the time he had completed his rounds, two and a half hours later, he had only slipped the rubber bands round the claws of four lobsters and begun to fish for tomorrow’s bait.
It had been an unsatisfactory harvest which perplexed him and added to a persistent dull ache, welling up somewhere between his brain and his stomach – the discovery, via a text message he had found on the phone of his pretty wife, that she was cheating on him. And that this upset the order of things, as he himself had perhaps done in the first place by marrying her, and that he needed to deal with it.
She had come with her parents to the village every summer on holiday since she was a young girl. Her home was a farm in Surrey, not a working farm but a substantially renovated Elizabethan house with swimming pool and ponies in the fields. Her parents were of that growing breed of wealthy southerners who had begun adopting Cornwall as a second home since the 1950s, wore faded pink chinos and sported blue skippers’ hats, and who drove up the price of property and the quality on offer in the restaurants. As the older locals had sold up or died, so their houses passed to the outsiders who could afford them.
Her parents’ house was just outside the village, but this was good as it meant, in the teenage days, a ride back on a local’s motorbike on a sultry evening. Small, blonde, with a nut brown body, her voluptuous charms became increasingly clear over the years and the young local men looked forward to her seasonal returns. Girls like her were their summer prey.
For the girls’ part, men like them were the stuff of fantasy – sea-hardy, roughly charming, detached, animalistic, exotic, untainted – with a type of authenticity that you couldn’t find in Surrey. And that they lived and worked here, in this neverland, all year round, with the sound of the sea, the cry of the gulls and the glorious aroma of fresh fish, well, what better life was there?
What drove the girls really wild was that the men seemed deliberately to ignore them, at least during the day when they were busying themselves about the harbour, all sweat and tarry fingernails and private jokes in earthy western accents. But it was a different thing in the evenings, when their work was over, and they would appear in the bars glowing and scrubbed, their wet hair swept back, a fresh shirt on if they felt lucky and strong dollops of aftershave all round. To be with them, thought the holidaymakers, was to really belong.
There were dances and bands laid on in local pubs and halls, well attended by the tourists but attracting the local lads too, a bit boozed up, smoking and leaning on their motorbikes outside the venues. They contrasted with the posh southern boys with their new temporary tans, strutting their stuff with varying degrees of clumsiness on the floor. And some of the holiday girls, bored with the burden of respectable, predictable, Home Counties convention inside, would venture out to the harbour-front, and coyly try their luck with the locals, coaxing their targets in. On one such occasion, when she was 16, outside The Idle Rocks, after much false protesting on his part, she had persuaded him to enter, late in the evening, and they had danced close as the slow music came on. Later she had gone with him to a place he knew. They had smoked under the gravitational pull of the moon and she had given herself to him as she had planned. And the next day she had been driven back to Surrey in the family Volvo, her secret intact, staring out of the window as the car wound up and over the ridge to a different world. A bridge had been crossed.
She wrote often over the next few weeks from school, he occasionally responding in a rough hand in short letters that were less romantic than she would have liked. But they tailed off, until she received one in the April of the following year. His father had died. Drowned and washed up on one of the craggy inlets. It seemed detached, impersonal, objective, almost as if such deaths were part and parcel of things. But was it a cry? An impulse seized her and she absconded from school and dashed by train to the funeral. The wake was at the old cottage, now his, and she fell in love. She had circled her neverland for long enough and this time she stayed.
Come summer and the church bell would welcome a new member to the community, though her parents chose not to attend the wedding and their holiday house stood empty on the other side of the hill.
It had all the makings of a fairy-tale summer. Her friends arriving for the marriage, all a-gossip and dressed in finery and hats, bringing news from home. From her husband’s side, the smell of musty suits at the ceremony, ill-fitting and years out of date, did nothing to break the spell. The party at the Rocks afterwards, when the younger members of both sides, perhaps stimulated by her own success, tried it on with each other with a touch more carpe diem than usual. And the long days of heat that followed, the beach parties and barbecues with her friends, the water-skiing and wave riding. And then when it was all over, the season finally spent, and the revellers had packed up their memories for another year and left, she remained, with a real man and real cottage on the cliff. Her friends would return to their universities and futures, and she would stay suspended in time, for ever.
But the autumn and winter of the first year were another thing.
One by one the second homes shuttered up and the owners repaired to Volvoland. Life on the quayside closed in. The sea lost its colour most days, and as the mists gave way to driving rain the happy faces of friends and tourists were replaced with what she began to feel were the sneers of the local girls. Links with her parents were restored in part but they were not for returning for the moment: they would most likely rent out the property next year. And as the December frosts moved in, she would find herself too often alone in her kitchen, with the shipping forecasts droning out their portents on the radio, as she prepared the packed lunches and daily meals. And the smell of fish, that aroma she had once longed for, given everything for, was now all-pervading, inescapable, and emerged from everywhere.
And the church bell tolled the hours that echoed out to sea. And the rain came and came again. And that was that.
She too had time to muse, to regret. It had been like a snatch of music, she thought, that you hear a few times on the radio. It grabs you, and goes through your head for a while until you get the tune right and you can sing it yourself and then you learn the words and then for some reason, when you’ve done all that and got it right the original magic seems to fade.
As she gradually began to work out, too late, it was not being there that had made her happy. It was not being there. It was the annual anticipation of change, and the bitter-sweet knowledge that it had to end, that heightened the anticipation, honed the pleasure. And now that she was a full-time part of it, sucked into its myth, she felt overwhelming disappointment, trapped in its cycle, the gloss of other-worldliness reduced to the matt of reality, with its constant fishy smells and dirty fingernails. And all the time the beady eyes of the lobsters in their boxes on the table seemed to haunt her, and perhaps empathise and commiserate in equal measure…
Maybe the spring would lift her mood.
For his part he too had begun to feel the burden of expectation and, as he looked back to that moonlight night, he knew as he always had, that perhaps he too had docked too soon. There were ways, customs, between men of the sea and their women, something the local girls understood: routine work, periods of absence, boozy sex on the men’s terms. Above all, faithfulness, on the part of the woman. It had its demands but that was the basic deal.
The local girls made their own company, he had told her. There wasn’t the time for candlelit dinners in bijoux restaurants outside the season. There just wasn’t the money, despite the lobsters. And when there was, and she had made plans to break with the present and visit this or that restaurant with him, the elements seemed to get in her way – a friend needed help on his boat, the bass were running…these became the inconvenient priorities of life. And because of this, words were spoken and his evenings in the bars became extended. It all happened imperceptibly but quickly, as it had no doubt happened before.
The opportunity presented itself to her the following summer. In a bid to break the stalemate she had taken a job in the new shop selling beach goods and summer wear. It was at the end of the main street away from the harbour but it did a fair trade in stripy tops and sunhats, and in the window stood a mannequin with a suggestive pose sporting the latest must-have swimming trunks. The husband had mildly disapproved, worried about his meals and washing, but she had insisted and she enjoyed the job. It was light work and it swelled their income. When she returned each day, she would hang the shop’s key with its little seashell fob on the hook in the kitchen and breathe just a little more freely.
The downside was that she could not join her friends when they descended for the season but they came into the shop and chatted, both sides finding the other curiously changed, she welling up inside at talk of home, hen parties and weddings to which she had not been invited, and they thinking that for all her good luck in living a life of permanent holiday, she had become a little careworn, which surprised them.
A man had come in one day, tall, mid 40s, light blue polo shirt from which sunglasses dangled at the V, shorts, and tanned slightly varicosed legs. An air of easy charm and expensive jasmine fragrance. He had just rented a house over the hill, he explained. Her heart jumped a little and a slightly breathless conversation was struck up, as she explained with the flush of coincidence that her parents were the owners. He was a banker, semi-retired, with a place in Hampshire. He had taken the house on a whim, was there for six months and was scouting out the village. She made a few suggestions before getting round to his marital status, with only veiled subtlety that he spotted, and here he baulked slightly, but recovered himself saying that his wife had been struck down with MS some years previously and was now wheelchair-bound, but that they had decided that the sea air would do her good. She offered sympathies, but it was a promising start. He admired the mannequin, in its suggestive pose, bought the trunks and a few other things and left to continue his moochings.
He was back the next day on some pretext and, perhaps knowingly, enquired about lobsters, and the best place to buy them. They made a date for the next day for him to come and visit the husband who would be back some time after high tide. He arrived early, and when the husband came in, right on time, they were already on their second glass, leaning on the new balcony rail and talking of the people they discovered they had in common. They inched gingerly away from each other as the husband pulled a couple of specimens from a polystyrene box and a price was agreed.
For the first time in a while she felt herself rising off the bottom. The frisson that she felt, that they surely both felt, had given her new purpose, the oxygen to risk, to live again, to escape. There was a way out, a way back. Surely.
Not wishing to offend or raise the suspicions of the woman now trapped there, she never did venture to her parents’ house over the hill, but occasionally they would meet when the patient was wheeled out to sit on the harbour parapet and watch the boats. Her body could barely function, but her mind seemed bright enough, sharp, resigned, helpless. Unable to propel herself up the steep cobbled streets she confided that it had not perhaps been a good idea to come at all, and she resented the little chairlift that her husband had installed in the car and that made her feel lost in a depersonalised world of machinery, a tangle of gadgetry for the disabled. She’d had her day perhaps and wondered if the idea of Cornwall was really a ruse of her husband’s so that he could still have his.
He would come often to the shop now and linger while any customers left, she glancing at him from the till and both parties feeling the urge to commit, neither finding quite the right words or time to make the first move. But a move was inevitable and, as the days passed, he could wait no longer and one afternoon in August he loitered near the path behind the cottage and caught her on the way out, by the “Not For Sale” sign. He knew he was out. She invited him in and their lives began spilling out, becoming entwined. He returned with increasing frequency, and as he did so her world began to spin on a different axis. On the balcony, where they often stood, screened from the world by the gorse and thorn bushes, peering down the cliff face to the rocks below, and beyond to the boats, they would single out one, with its yellow oilskin, just off the point, and they knew they were safe. It became their code word in various semi-cryptic texts: “Where is the oilskin?”, “The oilskin is at sea. Come now”.
As for him, out on the sea, he had started to suspect something. Had he once glimpsed two figures on the balcony, or had a heat haze tricked him? There had been vague hints on the quayside from the local girls and a curious smell of jasmine was detectable in the cottage at times. He challenged her about it one evening, nonchalantly, in a roundabout way. It was a new type of washing powder came the spontaneous adrenaline-fuelled reply, and that night, when she was asleep, he had gone through the dustbin and found the packet and scoured the ingredients: essence of jasmine .2%. Maybe the gossips were wrong.
His self-delusion and peace of mind were short-lived, however. One morning, dawdling with her mobile on the kitchen table he had read a series of texts that he only half understood but which left him in no doubt.
And so it was that he was there on that summer’s day, where this story began, a day of almost flat calm, when the mind can work at its hardest, thinking about how he, the oilskin, could deal with the breach of faith.
He had been patient and worked on the plan with weather forecasts and tide charts for some weeks, until finally the elements coincided and the day offered itself, a Sunday of autumn mist, and a high spring tide at 20:57. Winds northerly 2 or 3. Sea State Slight. Visibility moderate.
It was time.
He had been out for that Sunday afternoon she knew not where, but had returned lugging a couple of large polystyrene containers, roped tight shut. A patchy light mist was blowing in, and she was in a fluster because she had mislaid the key to the shop for the following morning. He said not to worry it would turn up. After a sequence of unusually poor lobstering days he said he had hopes that the spring tide might bring better fortune, that he would be back late. He left her at the cottage at six, dressed in a black t-shirt, his yellow oilskin slung over his shoulder, and made his way to the harbour, with the two large white containers piled up on a little trolley. He passed the vicar who nodded on his way in to a poorly attended evensong. He greeted a couple of other fishermen heading to their patches in the north, bundled everything into his dinghy and made for his crabber. Five minutes later and he was underway to his grounds just off the point. He radioed up the coast guard to report several large pieces of timber floating in on the tide.
On the balcony she frantically watched him disappear into the light mist, fumbled for her phone and tapped her customary text with quivering fingers. There was no immediate response and she checked the number, growing increasingly, maddeningly agitated, but half an hour later he appeared. She locked the door and put the key on the hook. They were cutting it fine she said, but he, to reassure her, took her hand and stepped out onto the balcony. The mist cleared occasionally and the boat was just visible, steered by the yellow helmsman. They had the time they needed. Relieved, and desperate, she went to the kitchen and hurriedly poured a drink for them before returning to the bedroom. After it was over, they returned half-naked to the balcony to keep watch and spin out the moments. For a second they panicked as the boat was nowhere to be seen, but it emerged bobbing in a long round circle just where it was before. He was no doubt fishing for tomorrow’s bait.
He turned to kiss her but as he did so there was an eruption from the kitchen. A man in a black t-shirt seemed to have sprung from behind the door, a maniac who launched himself at the couple, driving into them with such force that the new balcony railing gave way and they, the lovers, clutching at each other, their screams drowned out by the sound of the gulls above, hurtled down the sixty feet to the waiting rocks below and a web of seaweed. The assailant checked briefly for movement but there was none, save for the spring tide waves that were breaking on long-unfamiliar ground.
Out on the sea, an hour later at 20:35 the husband throttled down as he re-entered the harbour. It was all but dark and he moored on his buoy. At nine o’clock he was in the Rocks with a pint. Just before closing, as he was about to go, there was a commotion at the door and the harbourmaster, bewhiskered and in uniform, entered accompanied by a wan-faced policeman. They scoured the room for him and took him aside respectfully. They explained their business. Two bodies had been found floating on the ebb tide, a male and a female, one of which, the policeman hesitated to say, was his wife. His glass slipped from his hand and broke into small pieces on the flagstone floor.
The next day, Monday, and the coroner came, and an Inspector from Truro. They had to go over the house, he would understand, to look for clues, check for foul play, eliminate him from enquiries. Him! He could hardly speak to them. Dredgers, divers and local forensic people scoured the site at the bottom of the cliff. Statements were taken from a widening number of witnesses who stepped forward – the vicar, the harbourmaster, various fishermen, the landlord of the pub – all of whom swore on oath that he had been about his pots at the time of the accident, indeed had spoken to him, seen him.
On the Tuesday, the local paper made a five page deal of it, how the door to the cottage had been locked, with pictures of the cottage, the balcony, himself, his father, his wife, her parents newly arrived to take her body home when the time came, the banker and a woman trapped in a wheelchair. And copious other witnesses and commentators from the village stuck their disparaging oars in concerning the scandalous lovers, outsiders, who had broken the bonds of trust and fallen to an accidental but no doubt deserved death. And, eventually that was the coroner’s verdict some months later in Truro.
Hidden towards the middle of the paper, however, was another little article that might well have made the front page on a normal day. Its headline was this: MANNEQUIN STOLEN FROM SHOP.
One person, with a boat with an old beech-wood tiller that you could tie off, and who had braved the secret way up the cliffs, knew that it now lay weighted, deep in the waters off the point, staring amongst the lobsters.
And when he returned in the morning his pots were full.
Hugh Kellett studied languages at university, spent most of his working life playing around with words in London advertising agencies, and has a reputation as a wordsmith. The humorous potential of the English language with its rich nuances and punny possibilities became one of his abiding passions and he is the author of two funny books: Glitzch! – the hilarious and often alarmingly perceptive rewriting of British history using deliberate wrong predictive text autocorrects; and The Dictionary of Posh, in which he reveals a secret if moribund language hidden within English, still spoken by the very well-heeled.
mannequin photo courtesy of John Schaidler via unsplash
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