Although fictional, this story was inspired by recent local events in our area. Sadly there are quite a few truths in here.
(Any similarities to anyone, etc… )
Charles was sitting alone in a corner, finishing his second pint when the pub exploded with hoots and shouts of mocking laughter. He was chewing the hairs on the back of his index finger and staring blankly at the letters K.C. carved into the wooden table next to his beer mat at the time and barely noticed the uproar until the barman rang the bell and yelled, ‘Probably just a wind-up, but if there’s a Mr. Charles Snuffington-Houghtonbury-Wells on the premises, there is an urgent telephone call for you!’
The man with the stormy expression and purple nose, who had been eyeing-up Charles for the last half hour, turned and stared again as the noise in the room became hysterical.
‘Well that’ll be the posh architect twat from outa town, then. Unless o’ course tis a wind-up,’ bellowed a pink-faced young blonde man, frozen in time with a dart in his hand. Poised and ready to throw he was waiting, like everyone else to see who came forward.
Charles feigned interest and looked theatrically around the room like everyone else as the laughter died down and people turned back to their companions. He pointedly sucked at his already empty glass and rummaged for change in his pocket as an excuse to walk up to the bar.
‘Pint of bitter please… and a scotch, thanks.’ Charles dropped the consonants at the ends of his words and plumped for an Eastend accent, knowing he’d have no chance trying to sound like a local.
‘You’re not Mr. Snooty-Posh-Bloke, then?’ the barman grinned, drawing him into an amicable smile.
Charles found himself grinning back. ‘No, no… not me mate. Surely someone like that would have his iPad and his Blackberry and all manner of gadgetry for people to get hold of him… Who’d been trying to reach him on a landline?’
‘Well between you and me…’ the barman leant forward and lowered his voice, ‘…the chap said he was a lawyer and it was urgent.’
‘Mm-mm-mm… Intriguing…’ Charles drained the scotch and raised his eyebrows conspiratorially.
The barman mirrored the eyebrows and nodded. ‘There’s always lawyers with these guys. Lawyers and dosh.’ He rubbed his fingertips together and turned to serve the next customer.
Desperate for space and privacy, Charles looked back at his table to find it already taken.
Karla… Oh Karla… So soon? Why so soon? Why the lawyers already?
‘Quickly,’ she’d said. ‘I want this over quickly.’
Charles tightened his jaw and blinked away the imagined pictures he’d been fighting off for days of Simon’s hands on her skin and decided to get back to his hotel as fast as possible.
As he raised his pint to neck it, a young mother with a child’s buggy drove into the back of him, causing his legs to buckle just enough to throw his body forward and tip most of his pint into his face and down the front of his shirt.
‘Jee- Sodditt!’ he splurted out, through the yeasty half-drowning as the mortified young woman attempted an apology. Ignoring her, Charles slammed his pint glass down on the bar, wiped his face with his sleeve, and forced his way out of the busy pub without making eye contact.
Two and a bit pints and a scotch on an empty stomach were making fast work on his usually tee-total bloodstream and Charles swayed as he leant to open his car door.
‘Drat,’ he muttered when the door didn’t open and he realised he hadn’t pressed the unlock button on his keys.
He felt through his pockets and found nothing but money. He’d left them on the bar.
Maybe he could get a taxi and come back for the car tomorrow when it was quiet. He couldn’t face going back into the pub.
He started to walk reluctantly towards the main road, not really sure of his plan when he realised he didn’t have his phone. Where was he when he’d switched it off? Had he been in the car or the pub? He wandered back towards the car, feeling clumsy on the irregular surface of the dusty carpark and as he scuffed his toes on loose chippings he inadvertently released a loud, beer belch and stumbled forward.
He was walking around his car, looking through the windows and shaking his head when he heard a laugh.
‘Not thinking of nickin’ it, are you? Not in that state?’ called a female voice from nearby.
Charles spun around until he found where the voice was coming from. A young woman was sitting cross-legged on a grass verge, with a cigarette in her right hand and two large bottles of beer in her lap.
‘It’s my car and I’m not in a state,’ Charles snapped back at her. ‘I’m just trying to remember where I put my phone.’
‘Sure you are,’ she giggled and got up. ‘That’s why you’re walking round in circles, tripping over your own feet.’ She walked over and pointed to his beer-soaked chest. ‘What a waste.’ That’s gotta be a least two quid you’re wearing there.’
‘Do you have a phone I could borrow?’ Charles asked. ‘I need to phone a cab.’
The girl stamped out her cigarette, pressed the beer bottles precariously between her long, thin legs and pulled a mobile phone from the pocket of her skinny jeans. ‘Not gonna try to nick my phone now are you? Here – you can try, but there’s been a wedding down in Newstock and there’s only about three taxi firms round here.’
Charles sighed and limply accepted the phone. ‘So. Do you have some cab numbers on this thing?’ The numbers on the keypad were sticky and faded, and the screen was cracked. He turned it over in his hand looking for an on button.
The girl sighed. ‘Give us it ‘ere then. Where do you want to get to?’
‘Erm…’ Charles looked down and shuffled awkwardly. ‘Combe Cliff Hotel’
‘Combe Cliff? There’s posh. Must be nice to be able to afford to stay in a place like that. But you don’t need no taxi to get there. You can just walk across the fields. You’ll be there in half an hour.’
‘Fields? Oh … I don’t know. I…’ Charles looked down at his shoes and trousers and thought about wet grass and cow dung.’
‘I’ll show you. There’s a couple of gates and a stile and one field where you need to keep close to the hedge but then you get round the corner and you can see your hotel. Come on. I’ll make sure you’re heading in the right direction and then I’ll leave you to it.’
‘Well, I… Yes. Thank you. Okay.’
‘I’m Tilly, by the way.’ The girl smiled and held out her hand.
Charles saw dirty nails and freckles and as he shook he felt her rough bony fingers and calloused skin. ‘Ch.. Chaz,’ he replied.
‘Nice to meet you Chaz,’ Tilly’s eyes danced and she looked away quickly as if afraid to meet his gaze. Charles found himself touched by the gazelle-like quality in her timid body-language and fast leggy stride.
‘Here hold these.’ Tilly passed the bottles of beer and opened the first farm gate.
‘Isn’t this private property?’ Charles followed her into the field and looked around.
‘It’s okay. They don’t mind. People come this way all the time. As long as we don’t leave the gates open or drop litter – and to be honest, nobody does… There’s a kind of general consensus – an understanding if you like, that it’s to be enjoyed by everybody.’
They strode on.
‘After that top field, where… well by the track… you know the old fisherman’s cottage? Have you seen it? By the coast path and the track down to the little mooring? Well, we used to go for picnics there and watch the sunset. Had a barbecue there for my thirtieth birthday.’
‘You’re thirty? I thought you were much younger.’
‘Thirty-six, actually. That was way back when… Well… Do you want to see it? It’s one of the best views in the area. I think it’s such a shame when people come here on holiday and they don’t even know about this place. It’s good to share, don’t you think?’
‘Well. Yes. I suppose.’
Charles followed her up a sloping field towards a track, scratching his head and begging himself to find a way out of this situation.
He’d intended just to sell the land and the plans and get the hell out as fast as possible. He hadn’t reckoned on going back to the fisherman’s cottage or the coast path ever again. Not now. Not without Karla. After all, he’d only been doing it for her. What was the point now? The sooner he was back in London the better.
‘You are on holiday aren’t you?’ Tilly turned and looked down at him, panting. The evening sunlight was behind her and her wispy hair looked golden and childlike. Almost angelic. ‘You’re a tourist?’
‘Oh yes, yes…’ said Charles unused to walking uphill, sweating and feeling light-headed.
‘Well you have to see this,’ said Tilly, still stomping and panting. ‘And make the most of it. It’s been sold to a developer and heaven knows what’s going to happen to it. Are you here with family? I saw you had a wedding ring? Maybe you could bring your wife here tomorrow?’
Charles touched his wedding ring. He pictured Karla, sitting waiting for him in the kitchen four weeks ago, her wedding ring removed and ceremoniously placed between them on the table next to a yellowing photo-booth photo of her as a teenager.
‘Thank you,’ she’d said. ‘Thank you for the house and the horse, for the family holidays. Thank you for showing me the other side of life and all the fine dining and the parties. I’ve met lots of people and I’ve worn some beautiful clothes. And I am grateful… but… I’ve forgotten who I am.’ She picked up the photo. ‘This was me. Where is she? I’ve had my teeth straightened and bleached, and my hair coiffed beyond all recognition at Taylor Taylor to compete with your friends’ wives. My belly was cut open to remove our children on a designated day to avoid inconvenience to your business trips. I’ve sat at dinner parties and shared discussions about who had the biggest this, the best that, the most expensive whatever, the most luxurious holiday. But I’m bored. It’s boring. Your friends are boring. You are boring. And I’m sorry but I’m leaving. I want me back. I just want to be normal.’
‘Who is he?’ Charles had asked. ‘You’re not strong enough to do this on your own. Who’s the bastard that thinks he can destroy my family?’
‘It’s Simon. You know – the paramedic that lives next-door to my sister.’
‘What? The little squirt who bought our second-hand Macbook. That little jerk? It won’t last. What can he give you?’
‘I’ve been seeing him for two years. This is the real thing.’
‘What can he GIVE you though?!’ Charles had roared ‘You’re not taking my money! You’re not taking my children!’ He spat as he shouted and his hands thumped the table.
Karla waited calmly. ‘I know you’re used to getting your own way but it may surprise you to know that you’re not going to this time. I don’t want your money. Don’t you see? I want my life back. I want to grow my hair and forget about my nails or what shoes I’m wearing. Do you know what I was doing last Sunday night when you were sat in your study, counting your money? I was lying on my back in the grass, staring up at the sky and counting the stars. And the children can make up their own mind. They’re old enough.’
‘Karla. Look. We’ll move to this new house and everything will be different. You’ll have your horses and your brand new home to fill with beautiful things and…’
‘No. Not more things. No more glitz and glamour. You’re building a palace there. I don’t want to live in a palace and be cut off from the rest of the world, like bloody Rapunzel or whoever it is… You’ve made a mistake. You’ve made an assumption that what you are doing is best for everyone, yet you haven’t consulted anyone.’
‘I thought it was what you wanted. You said it was beautiful there. Idyllic, even.’
‘Yes. Naturally beautiful and a lovely holiday destination. But it’s not home. Just because something’s beautiful doesn’t mean you have to own a piece of it. Make your mark on it. Change it to suit your own lifestyle. You should learn to appreciate things for what they are and accept that you can’t own everything.’
‘Are we talking about you or the village now?’
‘Is it possible I’ve just come across the first ever person who’s not stunned and amazed by this beautiful place?! … Chaz? Chaz!’
They were there. Charles saw Tilly standing in front of him, hands on her hips, with a combination of confusion and frustration on her face.
She waved her arms at the view. ‘Are you speechless because you’re overwhelmed or underwhelmed?’
Charles pressed his lips into a half-smile and looked dutifully about him as she pointed and physically pushed his body left, front, right, to take in the panoramic view.
‘Somebody. Somebody thinks you can buy and sell this kind of thing. A view that’s free for all is soon to be only viewed from within the frames of a swanky great house and sold off to someone who will have to come from out of town in order to be able to afford it. Someone has got it into his stupid head that it’s okay to spoil everyone else’s enjoyment of a place. This is beautiful. Beautiful. Why change it? Why tweak it beyond all recognition and put up a sign saying, This is mine. Keep out. Not sharing? Talk about gilding a lily.’
Charles saw that Tilly was crying and felt helpless. He had no room for someone else’s sadness. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Sorry that you’re sad about this. But things change, we can’t help that. And if something is private property it’s up to the owners what they do with it. In fact, we’re trespassing now.’
Tilly frowned at him as if she couldn’t make him out and looked like she regretted being there with him. ‘You don’t understand. How could you? Have you ever had the best, most brilliant thing taken away from you and known you could never had it back?’
‘Oh for God’s sake, woman. It’s just a bloody cottage! There are worse things that could happen!’ Charles had had enough. How dare she? ‘It’s not like anyone died!’
‘But they did!’ she screamed back at him. ‘This is where Kelvin proposed to me. This is where he had his painting studio and this is where he died. This is the only place where the kids and I can come to remember him! This is the most beautiful place in the world to me and I can’t bear to think I could never come here again! Look…’ she stomped to one of the sheds behind the cottage. ‘Look!’ Tilly opened the door and amongst the dirt and cobwebs were easels, paints, dust sheets and half-finished paintings. Charles had seen these outbuildings before and remained stand-off-ish.
‘When Ted lived here he let Kelvin use this place for free,’ Tilly continued. ‘He let anyone come up here. He gave the children apples and they paddled in his stream. We sat on that grassy slope and watched the sunset. Walkers would stop and have their picnics. It was uncomplicated. This person has complicated things. I should have got a good lawyer and tried to stop this.’
‘This couldn’t be stopped. I always get what I want.’ Charles said, noting the initials K.C. on the corner of one of the unfinished pictures and remembering the pub table. He couldn’t be bothered to pretend anymore.
Tilly span around and glared at him. ‘You?…You?! You’re the one doing this?’
Charles raised his eyebrows and shrugged. ‘It will be a lovely house,’ he offered.
‘But it’s lovely now!’ Tilly ran outside and collapsed in a heap, sobbing.
‘Why don’t you come and see it when it’s finished?’ Charles held out his hand.
But instead Tilly roared and charged at him, her beer bottles rolling away down the slope behind her as she pounded her fists into his chest, shouting, ‘Bastard! Bastard! Bastard, bastard, bastard! You always get what you want? What a rotten, twattish, selfish, arrogant, pig-headed thing to say! Are you even human? Do you have feelings?! I hate you! I hate you! You have ruined my life!’ She exhausted herself and turned away to gather her beer bottles, hugging them to her as if they were her last prized possessions on earth.
‘If I thought about everyone’s feelings all the time, I’d never get anything done,’ Charles said coldly watching her as she walked back to the track. His feelings for Tilly had cooled somewhat since she’d bad-mouthed him so rudely but he still felt responsible for her safety. ‘You’d better get home before it gets dark.’
‘ “Get off my land,” in other words?’ Tilly turned to walk away but stopped and looked back at him. ‘Enjoy the sunset,’ she smiled wryly. ‘It’s gonna be a good one. If you walk a bit further round you’re a bit more North-West facing and far enough out to see the whole of Combe. June’s sunsets are better round there.’ She held out a bottle of beer. ‘Here. Congratulations on your new home. I hope you and your family will be very happy. There’s a bottle-opener in the workshop.’
‘Show me.’ Charles felt an unusual desire for human company.
‘On the table.’ Tilly waved at the outbuilding.
‘No. The sunset. I would be honoured if you would join me.’
Tilly stared. Her eyes showed hurt and mistrust but she offered a peaceable smile.
Charles was once again reminded of an innocent wild animal. ‘Please?’
Tilly sighed and fetched the bottle opener from Kelvin’s workshop and Charles saw her whisper ‘goodbye’ as she walked out, her eyes wide and shining with tears. Then they stomped around the corner in single file without talking or looking at one another as the air became fresher and saltier and the strengthening wind pulled determinedly at Tilly’s hair.
‘There’s a rock. Just there. It’s big enough for two, if you like. Quite exposed but…’ Her speech had lost all its earlier enthusiasm and it tailed off weakly in the wind.
Charles nodded and sat down. He opened a beer carefully and slowly, holding it still as the foam frothed over the top. Then he passed it to Tilly, who took it and drank as he opened another.
They sat, sipping beer and staring ahead at the ocean and the surrounding coastline that stretched for miles to their right.
Green, yellow, blue, pink, thought Charles. Simple lines of colour from the farmland that touched the dunes that touched the sand that touched the sea that touched the sky. He thought of the paintings in the workshop.
‘Why are the paintings still there? Why haven’t you taken them away?’
‘No room. I have nowhere to put them. I’ll have to sell them or beg permission from someone with a big loft or something. I live with my parents. It’s crowded enough as it is there. And I always liked them being there. I guess I kind of hoped… ’ She sighed.
‘You don’t have your own house? Do you work?’
Tilly shook her head. ‘I do work. I teach at the local primary school, but no – I don’t have a house. You have to be rich to have a house round here these days. Most of my friends have one of those affordable modern box houses on the estate in town, but they say it’s getting rough there. There’s not enough jobs you see and it’s built on an old flood plain with no views or playing fields. I want my kids to have fresh air and access to the beach so we have to compromise.’
Charles refused to feel guilty. He felt he deserved what he had worked for. But he couldn’t help picturing the massive house and doubting if whoever ended up living there would be someone with local knowledge or be as deserving as Tilly.
In fact, he quietly suspected it would be a second-home to one of his work contacts.