I left the cottage and took the path behind my neighbours gardens, it intrigues me that folk think the rear of their houses are private, I find it amusing to watch them unobserved, but nothing interesting was happening today. Mildly disappointed, I followed the path around the village onto the cliff top, a steady climb from home. Looking seaward the gunmetal clouds were close enough for me to taste the iron tang of a coming storm.
Home. Odd word for somewhere I had only lived a relatively short while, moving here a year after Stella passed. Even after all that time I couldn't stop the expectation, the feeling as I opened the door that I would smell dinner cooking and she would come out of the kitchen drying her hands on a tea towel and smiling. I had begun to neglect the place, not cleaning for weeks and then only half-
I hired a cleaning firm to get the house up to scratch then put it on the market. I was pleasantly surprised when the estate agent told me how much it would fetch; when we bought it all those years ago it was a stretch but affordable. Still I knew that leaving it was the right thing to do, what did I need all that space for? And every room held her. It sold quickly and I found the cottage down here in Dorset which suits me perfectly. Less that three months after finishing work I was moved in and as settled as I could be. But I'll never not miss her.
From where I sat I could see over the whole village, the comings and goings, hear the clamour of the kids waiting for the school bus, the quiet when they had gone. I took my binoculars from my backpack and slowly swept them back and forth across the lanes and alleyways, it amused me to see whose back door was left open to be closed when a figure had furtively slipped inside. I had a kind of mental filing cabinet of the various routines and habits, I noticed that old Mrs. Welcome would sit in the churchyard every Sunday evening and talk to her husband. He, of course, stayed there when she slowly walked home.
I knew which of the village lads were going out with the lasses, which lads wished they were, which lass had three or four lads on a string and which lad looked longingly at another when he thought he was unobserved.
During my time here I had got to know most of the families to talk to, mostly not in any depth, but one or two, coming across me sitting on a bench on the quay, would sometimes, well, bare their souls I suppose. Stella always said I'd have made a good priest, if only I'd had the faith. That's how I got to hear about Paul. He was, is, something of a mystery around the village. He had moved here, a year or more before I had, into a tiny one bedroom fisherman's cottage just up from the harbour. He kept himself to himself, although he would always nod a hello in passing, it was obvious that there would be no idle chit chat. The most I had ever got out of him was when I said, in passing, 'It looks like there's a storm brewing', he replied 'Aye' and that was that. The rumours abound of course, I heard at various times that he was both an ex-
This morning I was watching as he left his cottage and walked down the quayside and away from the village, his shoulders dropped, his head downcast, he looked weary as though under a great burden. Although that may just be me being fanciful, of course, he was probably just going shopping, even enigmas have to eat.
I poured a coffee from my vacuum flask and resumed my sweep of the houses, my gaze slipping past the row of old terraced cottages facing the sea. Then something in the back of my mind flashed a light. Mrs. Elsome's milk was still on the doorstep. This stood out because so few people have milk delivered nowadays but she still did. The village has no shop now and the nearest supermarket is a good hours bus ride away and I knew that she found the return journey just too much. I made a mental note to check on her as soon as I was back down. There was nothing much going on around the village, Doolally Dave was kneeling in his back garden pushing a toy truck full of dirt from one end to the other and back, at six foot three and about eighteen stone he could be a frightening figure, if one didn't know him, but he was as soft as a teddy bear and the whole village, by tacit agreement, kept a lookout for him. I've even seen Denny, the "too cool for school" teen heartthrob, take Dave gently by the hand and lead him home when he found him walking, fully dressed, into the sea one day. Denny looked a bit embarrassed when I said "Good lad" as he passed me on his way back. "Couldn't let the daft bugger drown, could I" was all he said. I noticed that Dave's mum slipped him a packet of cigarettes at the bus stop the next morning. When his mates ribbed him about it Denny blushed bright red and said "Fancies me, don't she." But he waited until she was out of earshot to say it.
Packing away my flask and mug I slung my back pack over my shoulder and set off back down the path singing "All you need is love" to myself as I went, one of Stella's favourite songs.
Reaching the foot of the cliff I turned onto the coastal route around the village that took me along the front and past the terraces. I looked through the window at Mrs. Elsome's and saw her in her armchair with her head on her chest, I knocked on the window but to no avail, panicking slightly I rang next door's bell, just in case. Jane Segram opened the door and I explained why I was knocking. Luckily she kept a spare key and we hurried next door to find old Mrs. E snoring like a cartoon bear. We tiptoed out and collapsed in laughter as soon as we had closed the front door. Jane thanked me for being concerned and then she said that people had thought, initially, that I was a bit of an odd bod (her words) the way that I would suddenly appear in different parts of the village, rumour was that I may be a peeping tom or worse, but that she was glad that I kept my eyes open because if Mrs. Elsome had actually been ill she may not have been found until much later. I suppose I could have seemed suspicious, viewed that way, but I was just trying to, I guess, find a purpose.
By the time I got home the rain was starting and I made it in as the first flash of lightning heralded the start of nature's spectacular son et lumiere show. There is little to match the sight of a sea storm gradually sweeping in to the land. I pulled a chair up to the window and watched for the next hour until it blew itself out and the rain eased to a stop. Getting up I went to the kitchen and made a sandwich for lunch before returning to my viewpoint. Looking down into the village I watched Paul walk down to the harbour and along to the end of the quay where it juts into the sea and slump onto one of the stone benches there. Something seemed not quite right about the way he was sitting so I went upstairs to the front bedroom where I have a powerful telescope set up to watch the shipping pass along the Channel. Swinging it down I changed the focus until I could see him clearly, his face was in his hands and his were shoulders shaking. I dashed back downstairs and pulled my anorak on as I opened the door and headed down the hill. Not wanting to seem as though I had been spying I approached the harbour from the far end and came along the wall whistling a jaunty sort of melody. As I got to the bench I acted surprised and said "Oh, hello Paul, sorry, didn't mean to disturb you. What a storm eh?" He looked up and I saw that his eyes were red rimmed. "I say" I said "are you ok, old boy? Anything I can do?"
"No" he replied "nothing, there's nothing anyone can do now." He turned back and continued gazing at a sea the colour and texture of good Welsh slate.
I said "Look, you're obviously upset, and you can tell me to bugger off but, when my wife died, I found that it helped to talk about it, I tried to keep it bottled up but realised that that was all I could think about. It does help to, well, release it."
Paul sat there, silent, his head down his breath ragged. I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "You know where I am, if you want to talk, I'm here to listen."
Later that evening there was a knock on my front door, it was Paul with a bottle of whisky in his hand. "I thought that you might like a wee dram." he said.
"Come in" I said stepping back "I'm in here where there's a fire going."
I took two glasses from the dresser and fetched a jug of water from the kitchen, Paul poured a good measure into each glass handed me one and tapped his against mine "Slainte" he said.
"Cheers" I replied. We sat in silence for a while each staring into the fire, each seeing different things, things that we wanted to see in the flames.
"I had a letter this morning, a letter I had been expecting but dreading."
I said nothing letting him fill the silence when he was ready.
"You see, my partner disappeared a short while before we were due to move in here, he was a climber and would go off for weeks at a time, all over the world. But he always came back. Until the last time. He was in South America and supposed to be climbing with a group of guys he'd met in Nepal. I got a text saying that they hadn't turned up at the meeting point so he was going on alone. That's the last I heard until today. His body, what was left of it, has been found at the bottom of a crevasse, my address was sealed in a watertight packet in his back pack along with instructions in case of an accident to cremate his remains and scatter the ashes in the mountains where he was climbing. It's all been done and I don't even have somewhere to go to say goodbye."
There was nothing I could say to him to ease the pain so I just put my hand over his.
"The place where you can talk to him, say goodbye, swear at him, whatever you want, will always be inside you. Your heart will always hold him, that I know."
We sat on, drinking the scotch, until the fire began to die right down. Eventually Paul stood up, slightly unsteadily and put his coat back on. At the front door he turned to say goodnight, I put my arms around him and held him for a few moments.
"I'm here, anytime." I said "Don't for one moment think that you are alone, remember that the village will always be around you." He walked back down the path, turned at the bottom, raised his hand and was gone.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to support an adult.