In the same way that thousand-mile journeys start with the first step, so momentous events can begin to stir in the most humdrum and unexpected ways.
And yet they shouldn’t have been unexpected, because the moment I woke up that morning, I had a feeling that something important was going to happen. For one thing a wind was rattling at the window of my bedroom sending the curtains billowing. When I got up to close the window, I saw the clouds, scudding across a June sky of deepest blue, and the sea was a marvelous dark aquamarine, speckled with white horses. A most exciting sort of day.
Below, in the farmyard, Mary’s Brown Leghorn chickens pecked between the cobblestones for scraps of grain, and the wind caught their feathers and ruffled their knickerbockers, and their cackles and squawks sounded outraged.
The farm is called Polmeor and it belongs to my brother-in-law, Marcus Stevens. Marcus married my sister Mary ten years ago and they have 70 cows, 16 pigs, 3 dogs, a flock of hens, a couple of evil-tempered geese and 3 children. The children, in their turn, have an aged donkey called Dearest, used as a pack horse to carry, in a couple of pannier baskets, bathing and picnic things down the cliffs to the beach. As likely as not, on the way home, one of the emptied panniers might also contain a leg-weary toddler on the climb up the valley from the cliff.
We were three sisters, all five years apart. Mary, and then Lally and then me. Our parents lived in Surrey, and in the summer holidays, we were taken either to the Lake District or Wales, or even, once or twice, to Spain. But after Mary married Marcus, Lally and I never wanted to go anywhere but Cornwall. Luckily the farmhouse is large and rambling, and my brother-in-law the most generous and hospitable of men.The moment I woke up that morning, I had a feeling that something important was going to happen.
And as for Mary, she welcomed us with open arms, for the three children came in quick succession, and extra and willing pairs of hands were more than welcome. You might think that hanging out lines of nappies, peeling great buckets of potatoes for the midday farm dinner, feeding hens and shelling peas isn’t most people’s idea of a summer holiday, but Polmeor is a magic place where even the most mundane tasks take on a joy of their own.
That day, Mary took the Land Rover into Porthkerris with a grocery list three pages long. I was left to put a load of sheets through the washing machine, tidy up the breakfast dishes, and make a shepherd’s pie for lunch. I had everything done and the table laid, and was out in the garden pegging the sheets on the line, when Mary returned. I heard the car come into the farmyard, the pipe of a child’s voice, a dog barking and doors slamming. I was on the last sheet when the house door opened and Mary came across the grass towards me, carrying two glasses of cider in her hands.
“What’s this?” I asked. “Drinking before lunch?”
“I need it, I’m exhausted.” She didn’t look exhausted. She looked gorgeous, suntanned and blonde, like a Viking, I always thought. She had long hair in a pigtail now, and she wore faded corduroys and a coral pink T-shirt, and it was hard to believe that she was 30 and the mother of three children. I am dark-haired, and Lally is dark too, we are unmistakably related, but Mary is unique.
She flopped down on the worn grass and I sat beside her and took my glass of cider. All around us the sheets swung and snapped in the wind, there were three seagulls perched on the ridge of the barn roof, and the grass was starred with wide-eyed daisies.
Mary said, “I’ve got news for you. I saw Mrs Crispin in the fruit shop—she was buying oranges. And she wants us all to go and have a drink with her tomorrow evening, because—wait for it—she’s got Jonathan Locksley staying.”
It was just past noon and the sun was burning hot. I turned my head and looked at Mary, and we gazed into each other’s eyes. My horrified astonishment must have shown in my face, because she said, ruefully, “Yes, I know.”
“Did you say we’d go?”
“Of course I did. What else could I say? If we don’t go the word will get around . . . that we’re too guilty to show him our faces. And, after all, we have nothing to be guilty about—as Marcus continually tells me.”
“It’s different for him. Lally isn’t his sister.”
“That is what I continually tell him. But he just says that if Lally chose to elope with another man two weeks before she was due to marry Jonathan, then she’s the one who should feel guilty.”
“I expect she did. For a little.”
“Yes, but it’s difficult to sustain guilt, if you’re living half a world away from your wicked deed, basking in the sunshine of Denver, Colorado, and with a well-heeled husband, to boot.” Mary lay back on the grass and closed her eyes. “To boot. That’s a marvelous expression, but I haven’t the remotest idea what it means. Meantime you and I have to be charming to Jonathan and risk being cut dead.”
“He’d never be so unforgiving.”
“No, I don’t suppose he would. He was a super man. I could never understand why Lally threw him over for Henry Hardacre.”
“We’ve never met Henry, so how can we know?”Lally was the butterfly, the extrovert. No true beauty, she nevertheless had men falling in love with her from the moment she first opened her eyes.
“It wasn’t as though he was particularly handsome. At least, he doesn’t look it in his photographs. Why do Americans always have to wear such sincere spectacles?”
“Oh, Mary, I don’t know.” It seemed to me that she was splitting hairs.
“Anyway I’ve said we’ll go. We might as well get it over.”
I sighed. “All right,” I said. “I’ll come.” And Mary had not an inkling of what it was going to cost me.
The midday meal was always a hefty affair at Polmeor, eaten at the big table in the kitchen. That day there were nine of us around the table: Mary and Marcus and me, three children—one in a highchair—Ernest the cowman, a young agricultural student who was helping out over the harvest, and Mrs Ernest who came in when she could to give Mary a hand with the housework. Conversation was general and Jonathan Locksley was not mentioned. After lunch had been cleared away and washed up, Mary led the children upstairs to wash the meal off them, dress them in clean clothes and take them to a party.
So I was left to my own devices. I went out into the garden, plucked my bikini and a faded towel off the washing line and set off, down the fields to the cliffs.
A stream runs through Marcus’s land, gathering depth and momentum as it makes its way down from the moors. As it approaches the coast, it sinks down into a deep valley overgrown with hawthorn and knee deep in bracken, at that time lush with its new summer green. The path to the sea runs down this valley, hidden beneath the overhanging branches of the hawthorn. The air is sweet with the murmur of bees and bright with wild flowers that grow here like weeds; daffodils and primroses in springtime, and in summer, clumps of purple foxgloves as tall as a man.
The valley ends abruptly, just above the sea, the stream dropping down to the rocks in a miniature waterfall. I came out of the shelter of the trees and the wind pounced on me, as refreshing as a sluice of cold water.
The tide was out. The rocks, revealed, tumbled away beneath me, reaching long fingers out towards the creaming breakers, and, almost directly below me, Polmeor pool lay like a huge jewel in the grey granite, in places 20 feet deep or more.
There was a special rock above the pool where we always camped for picnics, marvelously sheltered from the sea wind and the right shape for sunbathing. I made my way now to this rock, dropped my bathing things beside me, and sat on its edge, my legs dangling. The sun was hot on my back, and it wasn’t difficult to spirit myself back in time to that summer when Jonathan Locksley had come into our lives.
Mrs Christie, whom Mary had met this morning in the fruit shop, was his godmother. She was a splendid lady, large-bosomed and deep-voiced, a terror on committees, and famous for the fact that she was never seen without a hat.
She lived in a large white house, with a garden filled with palm trees and other semi-tropical vegetation. She also had a tennis court which, although it had fallen into a state of mild disrepair, she brought firmly back to use if the circumstances demanded it. Having her godson to stay was just such a circumstance, and we all dutifully went over one hot Sunday afternoon to play tennis.
I was 15, Lally was 20 and Mary, at 25, already the mother of two little children. We were sisters, but we were very different. Mary was the domestic, home-making, maternal type. I was supposedly the intellectual. But Lally . . . Lally was the butterfly, the extrovert. No true beauty, she nevertheless had men falling in love with her from the moment she first opened her eyes. She might have been spoiled, but her sunny disposition and her ridiculous sense of humor somehow protected her. When she announced, at 17, that she wanted to go to drama school and become an actress, my parents made a few despairing noises, but it was only a token objection, and it was really no surprise to anybody when she got her own way.
She clowned and charmed and laughed her way through RADA, did a year with a provincial Rep, and then landed a small part in a new play which was opening in the West End.
It was terribly exciting. Our Lally was a real live actress, with her name on a poster in Shaftesbury Avenue.
But before this play went into rehearsal, Lally took a holiday. It was summer, and she and I came down to Polmeor. The summer of Mrs Christie’s tennis party, the day we met Jonathan.
“My godson,” Mrs Christie had said over the telephone, and we had imagined some fresh-faced youth straight from school. “He’ll have rosy cheeks and spots and be wearing old cricket flannels, rather yellow,” Lally decided as we drove over to Penzance piled into the back of Marcus’s car. “And he’ll say everything’s super, and be dreadfully embarrassed when he makes a mess of his serve.”
We all giggled maliciously, as sisters will, but it was Jonathan who had the laugh on us, because not only was he quite old—at least mid-20s—but immensely composed and charming. And he wore, not yellowed flannels, but a pair of honestly washed and worn jeans, and a whiter-than-white shirt, and his tennis was so good, even on his godmother’s weedy old court, that he made the rest of us look like clumsy beginners.
But as well as all this, he was the nicest, funniest man any of us had met in years, and by the time we left he had promised to come out to Polmeor to see us. He was there the next evening, and we had supper in the garden, and then drove out along the cliff road to the local pub, where he said all the right things to the right people, and was even able to charm Ernest the cowman, who is a singularly uncharmable man.
After that, he was with us most of the time, arriving, unheralded, ready to turn his hand to any chore; playing cricket with the children; carrying the baby down to the rocks when we went on picnics. It was one of those summers when, in retrospect at least, the sun always seemed to be shining, the sea blue, the evenings drowsy with stored warmth. It was a time for love, and I fell, at 15, in love with Jonathan.
Nobody knew. Nobody guessed. I didn’t even confide in Mary, for Mary was married to Marcus, and the slightest hint to him would have brought on a spate of unmerciful teasing. So I kept my love to myself, a secret to be dreamed about.It was a time for love, and I fell, at 15, in love with Jonathan.
It wasn’t as drastic a situation as it sounds. Jonathan was too old, too remote, too marvelous for my infatuation to become anything more than just that. To him, I was simply the little sister. I never thought of him and Lally. He was obviously enchanted by her, but everybody was enchanted by her.
Then one afternoon he and Lally and I took Henrietta, Mary’s eldest child, down to swim in Polmeor pool. Up at the farm it had been baking hot, but by the sea the breeze was cool and the waters of the pool as icy as ever. Henrietta was too little to swim in the deep waters—she was only three at that time—so I swam first and then took her hand and led her over the rocks to another shallow pool and went back to fetch her bucket.
But I never got the bucket, because I saw Lally and Jonathan first. They never saw me. They sat together, on the rock by the Polmeor pool. Lally between Jonathan’s tanned knees, her back cradled against his chest. His arms were around her, his chin resting on the top of her head. The soft murmur of their contented voices reached me over the gentle buffet of the breeze.
That was all. But there was about them a togetherness, as though love had ringed and enclosed them, shutting them away from the rest of the world. I saw Lally’s long tanned legs, her head against his shoulder. I saw him smile at something she said.
A black, shaming jealousy clawed at my heart. Like a rage, it engulfed and left me shivering. The little red bucket lay beside them, but I backed away, out of sight.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and told myself firmly how nice, how wonderful, they were in love, he would probably marry her, he would become my brother-in-law.
I told myself, in my mother’s voice, that I would get over it. Everybody had a first love, and it would never be the same. I was, after all, only 15. I told myself that there were better fish in the sea than ever came out of it. I told myself . . . I was crying. But crying wasn’t any good, because I had to get back to Henrietta before she drowned herself or came searching for me.
And so Lally went back to London, not only a budding actress with a part in a West End play, but engaged to Jonathan Locksley as well. It was all very convenient because he was working in London; he had a flat there, and he used to come down to my parents’ house at weekends. My mother adored him, and my father thought he was a good fellow and everything was perfect.
The invitations for the wedding went out, my mother made lists, my father wrote checks, and the presents came rolling in. I was going to be a bridesmaid, and my mother got me the prettiest dress I had ever seen.
I don’t quite know how Lally met Henry Hardacre, but I suspect he saw the play in London one night, and came round to her dressing-room afterwards with a bunch of flowers, or something like that. Americans are always very good about bringing bunches of flowers. Anyway, she let him take her out for dinner, and the next night she phoned Jonathan to say that she had a headache and she was going to bed early, but instead she went out with Henry Hardacre.
The next Sunday she came home for the day, and we all noticed how tired and pale and distraught she seemed, but I put it down to the business of having to act every night and my mother said it was pre-wedding nerves. Lally went back to London and none of us gave her obvious depression another serious thought. We just went on opening parcels and ringing up the man about the marquee and trying to decide how much wine we were going to need.
But in the end we didn’t need any wine, because the next week Lally left the play, another girl took over her part, and she and Henry Hardacre were married in London by special license. The first we knew of it was a telegram we received from Heathrow airport, and by the time we got it, she was already over the Atlantic and on her way to her new life in Denver, Colorado.
From there she wrote a long, loving and apologetic letter, which made it impossible for us not to understand and forgive her. My parents behaved quite perfectly. After the first appalling shock, a few tears (from my mother) and a few unprintable expletives (from my father) they gathered themselves together and set about unscrambling the wedding preparations.
This was all bad enough, but nothing was as bad as the inevitable session with Jonathan. He came down to see us the day after Lally disappeared. She had written him a letter which had been waiting for him on his desk when he got to the office that morning. He had a long talk with my parents (I pretended to be ironing in the kitchen, and I could hear their voices going on and on from the other room while I made a bungling mess of one of my father’s shirts).
When it was time for him to go, my mother called to me and I went out into the hall to say goodbye. He was composed as ever, but his face had a pallor like white blotting paper, and somehow I couldn’t look into his eyes. That was the last time I saw him.
Ever since the debacle of the wedding that never took place, I had been sustaining myself with clichés. Time is a great healer. Water flows under the bridge. Tastes change, even in men. The person you love at 15 is not necessarily the person you love at 20. But still I remembered him. His tall, erect and slender shape, his voice, his eyes, filled with laughter.
“He’ll be over 30 by now,” Mary worked out, as we drove over the moor in a golden evening to have drinks with Mrs Christie.
“An old, old man,” said Marcus, who was nearing 40.The person you love at 15 is not necessarily the person you love at 20. But still I remembered him.
“I think,” said Mary, “I’d feel better about it all if only he’d married. But he’s still footloose and fancy free. I wonder why? He was so wildly attractive.”
“Perhaps he was more in love with Lally than any of you realized.”
“Or perhaps,” suggested Mary brightly, “he’s turned all twisted and bitter.”
Marcus groaned. “Give the man a chance.”
We were the last to arrive at the party. There we found many cars parked on the gravel sweep outside Mrs Christie’s house, and the three French windows of the drawing-room were open to the sloping lawns and some of her guests had already found their way out there to admire her garden, smell the roses, look at the view.
We went into the house and through the hall and the noise of concentrated conversation came out and hit us. I always hate going into a crowded room, there is something quite terrifying about it, but someone gave me a drink at the door, and Marcus gave me a shove from behind, and the next moment Mrs Christie was bearing down on us, resplendent in her best gaberdine, and wearing—yes, wearing her hat: a sort of velvet turban.
“Oh, my dears, how nice to see you. I was afraid you weren’t going to be able to come. What a beautiful evening, you simply mustn’t go home without taking a look at my philadelphus, it’s quite perfect. Now, who do you know? You probably know everybody . . .”
He was here, somewhere in this room full of people. A prickling sensation down the left side of my face warned me of his presence. I have always been very sensitive to other people’s stares. I turned my head slowly, and, across the room, across a haze of cigarette smoke and a sea of chattering heads, our eyes met.
They were very dark and deepset eyes, and his face was thinner and his hair a little longer than I remembered. But otherwise he was exactly the same. And so was I, because all those clichés with which I had been comforting myself over the years evaporated into thin air, and there I was, in love with Jonathan all over again.
He didn’t smile. I went cold, thinking that perhaps he was going to turn away from me and cut me dead, but after a long moment, he excused himself to the woman standing next to him and politely edged his way through the throng. When at last he reached my side, he took my hand in his, and I thought he was going to kiss me, but he only said my name.
Its sound was sweet on my ears. I said, “Hello, Jonathan.” He shook his head, a man confused by his own astonishment. “Why did I imagine you were going to stay a little girl for ever? My godmother told me she’d asked you and Mary and Marcus, and I had a mental picture of you just the way you used to be. And here you are, all grown up and looking like . . .” His voice tailed away.
With more courage than I ever suspected I was capable of, I finished the sentence for him: “Looking like Lally.”
I had said her name, and it was like a door opening between us. Jonathan hesitated, and then he began to smile. “Yes. Lally. I suppose that is what I meant. How is she?” I opened my mouth to tell him, but he stopped me. “No, don’t tell me here, I can’t hear myself think. Come on, we’ll go out into the garden.” He was still holding my hand, and he turned and led me back across the room and out through the French windows into the blessed open air. A few elderly pieces of garden furniture had been arranged around the lawn, but these were already occupied by older guests who didn’t relish standing, so Jonathan and I went a little way off, and he took off his jacket in a most chivalrous manner and spread it on the grass and we sat on that.
“Now tell me. How is Lally?”
“It was a brave thing she did. It must have taken a lot of courage. Has she ever been home?”
“No. She’s always talking about making a visit, but she hasn’t yet. Perhaps next year, before she starts a family.”
“And how are you all? And your parents?”
“Very well. They’re in Scotland just now, playing golf.”
“I . . .” He looked down into his glass. “I wanted to come and see them again, after Lally went off like that. I wanted to keep in touch with you all. I didn’t want to lose you. But I got sent abroad, and when I came back to London last year, I was afraid I’d just be opening up old wounds if I got in touch with you again. I was so sorry for your mother and father. They behaved so splendidly, and they were very kind to me. It was a gruesome thing to happen to them.”
“It was a pretty gruesome thing to happen to you, too.”
“It was probably for the best.” He looked into my face. “I’m glad it’s worked out for Lally.”
“I wish you’d got married . . .” I started, and then stopped, because of course this was a total lie and I didn’t wish he’d married at all. “I mean, perhaps then we wouldn’t feel that your life was totally ruined.”
He began to laugh. “Totally ruined,” he told me. “Can’t you see, after all these years of despair, I’ve become a shambling wreck.” And I laughed too, because no man had ever looked less of a shambling wreck. “Don’t worry, I was far too busy, and anyway, I never met anybody I wanted to marry. And now don’t let’s talk about me any more. I want to hear all about you. What’s happening to you?”
“I’m at university.”
“It figures, as they say. You were always the bright one of the family. What are you reading?”
“And you’re spending the vacation with Mary and Marcus?”
“Right. She’s got three children now, and Henrietta’s nearly eight. Do you remember Henrietta?”
“I remember Henrietta, and Dearest the donkey. And I remember being sent out into the garden to dig up potatoes, and picnics at Polmeor pool.”
“I was down there yesterday. The tide was out and the pool was as deep and blue and cold as ever. Nothing’s changed.”
He said, “Yes, it has. Everything’s changed. Nothing ever stays the same. We all grow older, we’re born, we die. Henrietta is eight. Lally is far away. The pattern constantly changes.”
His words made me feel wise and old. Sad and happy at the same time. I said, “If I asked you, would you come back to Polmeor and see us all? Would you come, or would it be too full of memories?”
“I’d come. I’d have come days ago, only I thought it might embarrass you all.”
“Oh, Jonathan, how stupid we all are! Mary and I didn’t really want to come here this evening because we thought it was going to be so uncomfortable and difficult . . . seeing you again, I mean.”
“And is it?”
I very nearly kissed him. I said, “No.”
“In that case, let’s pretend we’ve only just met each other, for the first time. Let’s pretend that I’ve taken a fancy to you, and I’m going to ask you to come out to dinner with me. We’ll find some crafty nook hung about with lobster pots and we’ll eat crabs or clotted cream or whatever happens to be on the menu. Would you like that?”
Someone called my name. We looked up and saw Mary and Marcus coming across the twilit lawn towards us. And a curious thing happened. It was like watching a film when the projector suddenly breaks, and you are left watching a single frame, a picture frozen to stillness. That instant was crystallized, for me, forever; the expression on Mary’s face when she saw us sitting together, the blue dusk of the garden, the scent in the air of orange blossoms; the long lighted windows of the old house. And Jonathan.
My love. My only love.
It was over in a second. Mary was saying, “We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” and Jonathan stood up to greet her. He took her in his arms and kissed her as though indeed she were his sister. And Mary hugged him back and said, “Oh, Jonathan, how wonderful to see you again.”
I remembered then how the day had started, with the wind blowing, and the bright sunshine, and Mary coming across the garden at Polmeor to tell me that Jonathan was back, and we had both been filled with foreboding.
But now . . . Now I felt that anything could happen. Thousand-mile journeys do begin with the first step. Jonathan took my hand and pulled me to my feet, and I had visions of us, hand-in-hand, plodding along down the years with rucksacks on our backs.
I began to laugh. He asked me why I was laughing, but I didn’t tell him. But perhaps, one day, I will.
From A Place Like Home: Short Stories. Copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.