BESIDE THE STILL WATERS is our latest novel. Read the first chapters here and see our Books page for more.
HE remembered the place from his best childhood holidays; when the family were together and, for a while, without pressures. Would it have changed much? Everywhere else had, to his nostalgic memories, yet in other ways remained what they'd always humbly been.
There had seemed little point staying longer in Barrow, which he'd reached in the hired car by early morning. It had been the obvious place to start from, back to his beginnings, now he had returned to Britain.
The town looked less run down than before but, then, he remembered it from being a child, when times were hard – as everyone used to say. Now, at least, there were signs of new ventures so different to back then; nail and beauty parlours, cyber cafés, there were even Italian and vegetarian restaurants.
But down his old street he had felt like a ghost, returning but not belonging. He had even spotted some familiar faces, just more worn by half a lifetime. They, in turn, had glanced at him quizzically, as though thinking, 'Could that be the Stone boy - Sam?' But, then, he'd seen the dismissal ('Surely not, they left years ago – and good riddance!'). He was just a passing stranger, probably lost; he looked and felt that way.
The Stones would be remembered badly, he guessed. The mother who thought herself better than others, with ideas above her station – though a pretty thing. The father, so full of himself – often of ale too – and never to be trusted around a bit of skirt; the boy, young Sammy, turning out as bad.
Yes, it had probably often been predicted that they'd bring down trouble upon themselves – and they had, in spades.
Stone drove on, rather aimlessly now. He had to find a B&B or, perhaps, for more privacy – a hotel, by evening. Still, that left plenty of time to explore. It was spring, his favourite time in the Lakes and Cumbria.
It was good to be out of cities, away from concrete, congestion and crowds. To finally again be free of commitments and appointments; all that stress of urban life, as society slowly regrouped from the pandemic inactivity and devastation.
He'd considered driving out to the far west coast, returning to the sea at last and the big beach there – where he'd first galloped on a horse; but that was really too remote, not what he was looking for, he'd realised. Stone wanted some quiet, time to think – and, perhaps, to write again; but also some life going on around him; not a place where everyone knew your business, or wanted to learn it all.
At Ravenglass he was reminded more of a ghost town from the old Western films, though the cottages on to its cobbled pavements were still quaint. It was as silent as the grave – and there'd been too many of those.
Then he had recalled, perhaps from his earlier thought of galloping along Silecroft beach, the place where he'd first learned to ride; that holiday in Lynwood. The area even had a restful sounding name.
Also, it wasn't far from Coniston, his favourite of the lakes, although called - for some mysterious reason - a 'Water' instead. Now, well before the high summer season, there should be plenty of accommodation; also, he could perhaps do some relaxed boating again.
Stone was now driving with more sense of purpose. His father had liked Coniston 'town' - “A quiet place, but not too quiet” - Stone now recalled him saying; his mother, too, she liked the shops there, where they didn't know her and treated her like a lady, though not the prices they charged.
They hadn't been able to stay in the town, which was really more of a large village. It was expensive yet more often than not 'full' – with even the small B&Bs showing 'No Vacancies' signs.
It was the first time, perhaps, that young Sam had realised they were poor; also, though he had tried to push away the thought, that his father might not be the hero and so great as he'd believed – being unsuccessful. It explained, perhaps, why his mother sometimes cried or looked sour; why he increasingly heard them arguing.
Even as he now journeyed to that place he'd enjoyed most when so young, a childhood sadness also descended upon him. He realised how hard it must have been back then for his parents, both steeped in a dying town, with ever more responsibility - perhaps each blaming the other. If they could only see him now; but what a price they'd all paid.
Instead of succumbing, though, Stone merely smiled at himself then admired the countryside, those lambs in the fields so full of life – gambolling, as the poets might have said – that 'Old Sheep Of the Lake District', as Horace Rumpole had described Wordsworth. Though, probably, the great man would have been more original than that.
The crusty but philosophical and irrepressible Rumpole was another literary favourite of Stone's. He had learned, through years in newspaper offices, to love 'characters'; those blemished souls who reminded you that, while life might not always go well or, even, justly, it was to be treasured and, still more importantly, enjoyed too.
There were characters in Lynwood, Stone had realised even at that early age when he'd visited a few times with his parents. They'd rented a caravan on a farm, a dairy and sheep farm with horses you could hire to ride. Cruck Barn Farm, he now suddenly recalled.
It had been run by a rather jolly, if rough looking farmer and his almost equally tough wife. She wore incongruous short, white socks and sandals, even when out of season and chilly.
Bates – that had been their name! Stone smiled. For the life of him, he couldn't recall the farmer's first name but now remembered his doughty wife was called Daisy, which had seemed too dainty by far. She and his mother had got on quite well, Stone thought. Daisy and her daughter Alison had even taken him in the odd evening, when his parents went on one of their rare nights out, together.
Her farmer husband and Stone's father had also gone to a local pub a short walk away; then the men had come back singing drunk, much to Daisy Bates' and his mother's dismay. It was called The Moon, that pub, he remembered now. “They are halfway to the moon, too,” Mrs Bates had muttered to his mum.
There had also been an older Bates child, a son who'd offered to take Sam up the nearby 'mountain', really more of a hill, called Black Crag he thought – the name had rather unnerved him. Fortunately, Daisy Bates had said it was too far and steep. Perhaps that son was now running the farm, Stone thought.
But his mind, as he drove, was now on Ali, the Bates' daughter - just a couple of years senior to young Sam. What would he have been, 13, 14 perhaps? His first time; when they'd been left playing in the caravan, his parents out, her family busy with lambing and calving or some other seasonal task.
Stone smiled at the recollection; that girl had been a minx, so much more mature and knowing than himself, the so-called townie. What an eye-opener that had been! He grinned but then had to concentrate as the chance came to pass a labouring farm wagon.
Yes, whatever happened to pretty, teasing Ali? That was over 25 years ago. Would she still be there, in Lynwood; perhaps now running that farm, or another?
Now he thought of it, a static caravan such as they'd had at Cruck Barn, would be ideal. He'd have his own kitchen and living room; could please himself about breakfast and other meals – even take himself off for a few pints down at The Moon, just a walk away along bridle paths.
Lynwood it would be, then, Stone decided, his spirits risen once more. There were a series of hills and, as his four-wheel-drive rental comfortably scaled the last of these, there came the first glimpse of Coniston Water, nestling among trees, glittering in the brittle spring sunshine. It fairly took his breath away, delighting him.
Then there was a steep decline. Stone accelerated past another heavily laden lorry then slowed as he suddenly saw the old-fashioned signpost for Lynwood at the roadside. To his surprise there seemed only a few huddled homes either side of the road with a couple of shops - more a hamlet than village. He was already through it and out into the open countryside.
But then he rounded a bend and saw an old inn right at the roadside. It looked familiar and he pulled into its empty car park. The Water's Edge, as it was named, appeared shut. Had the pandemic closed this centuries-old country landmark, like so many others?
Stone saw smoke rising from one of the cluster of chimneys and got out to stretch his legs. With the traffic now gone for a while, there was silence. He strolled further on, glancing through the old inn's leaded, stained-glass windows.
It was a low but long, rather crooked building, all rendered in grey, and appeared very old. Glancing through its many small, dusty panes was like looking back into history. Stone could make out narrow, low corridors and cosy rooms, furnished in red leather and darkened oak, some lit by lamps with dull, golden reflections of brass and occasional flashes of silver, picked out by the warm flicker of open fires.
But there was no one to be seen. A small printed sign, hanging in a window just before the solidly closed timber and metalled door, said simply 'Rooms'. There was no bell, only a heavy, cast-iron knocker which Stone shrank from hammering down.
He sighed, more than ready for a pint and pie, then he strolled on and peered into a stone-flagged bar, again with what seemed a substantial fire glittering in its unseen grate, hidden below a jutting slab of stone.
There were small, solid tables, comfortably worn chairs and pew-like bench-seats, then stools at the bar which boasted an array of hand-pumps and bountiful racks of bottles. It all looked invitingly snug and just his sort of place. How frustrating!
Stone was just ready for a drop of decent bitter and, perhaps, a wedge of sandwich, hopefully with chunks of mature cheese, pickles and, preferably, while seated in one of those cushioned pews facing that fire.
Instead he wandered out and round the building. There were a scatter of trestle tables with attached wooden seating; some folded parasols and crumbling statuary – a rather weathered female nude supporting a birdbath, assorted farm animals and fishing gnomes.
He'd hoped to find a rear kitchen door ajar and someone working - to check on opening times; after all, those fires were lit inside. But the only sign of life within the rambling inn was steam from an outlet on the first floor. It was clearly a bathroom, with an opaque window, unlike a few other leaded ones - presumably the inn's bedrooms so discreetly advertised.
There was a low fence and gate into a thickly wooded garden. Stone wandered into it, still stretching his legs. How fresh the spring air was, no wonder those lambs had been 'gambolling' so enthusiastically, hopping logs as the grazing ewes stared on.
'What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.'
Stone recalled the poem from school days in Barrow-in-Furness. He'd liked his English teacher, she'd brought those Victorian poets to life. 'Leisure', as this was called, had stayed with him because of its easy rhymes and simple pleasantness, to match its subject.
Poet W.H. Davies had been the son of a Welsh publican, a man with a wild streak as well as a way with words; an easy-going, handsome fellow, as Stone remembered Miss Taylor saying; a bent-briar smoker who looked like he enjoyed his leisure – not like an industrious, God-fearing Victorian at all!
Only when he'd lost a foot - jumping trains, the teacher had said, when travelling as a hobo in America then gold pan-handling in the Klondike - had Davies reluctantly returned to Britain, finally writing his poems and becoming famous; even marrying a pretty girl many years his junior.
Stone grinned, reminding himself he, too, was a man of leisure again; then walking on under the assorted ash trees, chestnuts and willows, through the thickets of rhododendrons and hydrangeas of this rather unkempt 'garden'. His father had taught him the names of plants, trees and birds on their rare but memorable walks and outings; his heart always being in the wild.
Then, as suddenly as in the hired Freelander earlier, Stone's thoughts evaporated. He stopped in his tracks and stared in delight as, just ahead through a clearing framed by the trees, the edge of the lake, Coniston Water itself, had appeared once more.
Close beside it, he saw now, there was also a ramshackle hut of some kind, or perhaps a boat house, even cottage . . .
“Oi! What y'doin' down there?”
Stone, who'd been about to investigate the distant clearing with its invitingly short, wooden jetty, halted and turned in surprise.
He felt instantly guilty and out of place, like the child he'd recalled being - all those years before; that wayward 'townie', an innocent visitor charmed - but also wary - at all the beauty and wonder about him. Could he really, and freely, roam all this?
THE shout had come from the inn, some distance away now. Stone found its source, an angry red face smeared with a snow-white beard, beneath an unruly mop of black hair. The man's head was poking out from that same window beside which steam was rising.
“You!” the disembodied, glowering head cried out. “Where d'you think you're goin'!”
Stone frowned – what a welcome! He didn't answer, as it would have meant him also shouting in a demented manner. But he reluctantly turned back and, pointedly strolling, re-approached the inn.
“Well?” came an impatient shout, even as Stone was closing the small gate behind him.
He looked up, standing his ground amid the pub's trestle tables. The man, he now saw, had been in the process of shaving – not displaying a white beard at all. But why was he so angry?
“I was just stretching my legs,” Stone calmly explained, “my car's in your car park.” Then he added, with deliberate irony, “I was considering lunching here, if you're ever going to open – I noticed your fires were lit, down in the bar and rooms.”
He was going to comment on the shortage of helpful signs or any information, but the head now disappeared.
Stone kept watching; at last seeing the bathroom window open wide again. The face was still swathed in shaving foam but now less florid.
“Didn't realise the bloody time,” the man called down, apparently placated. “Go round the front, I'll let you in.” With that, the window closed.
Stone raised his eyebrows, uncertain whether he now wanted to be the man's only customer. However, he did as he'd been told then stood still, patiently waiting before that solid, almost medieval front door.
It finally opened, with much muttering, then was secured with a heavy block of cast iron, shaped to take boots for cleaning.
“Sorry about that,” his greeter said, at last standing up, almost to Stone's height, a little short of six-two; but he was of even heavier build, with a generous paunch.
“Come in,” he added, standing back into a low-ceilinged corridor with Tudor-style beams and thick, plastered walls. “There's a snug or the bar with fires lit; were you dining, did you say?”
Stone smiled, stepping in beside his host. The pair of them almost filled the width of the hallway.
“The bar would be fine,” he replied, adding, “I was only thinking of a sandwich – and a pint.”
“'Course, whatever,” the publican said, stepping in front and swinging open a door into the small bar area Stone had seen and liked from outside. “I'm a bit behind, out fishing from early – then dozed off.”
Stone followed the landlord in, first taking in the blazing log fire in that vast grate. It roared away under what looked like a great slab of slate inches thick.
Then he studied the bar.
“A pint you say?”
Stone nodded, glancing along the pumps. “Better have Bluebird, I suppose.”
“Sure, or there's Hawkshead, all local brews.”
The landlord was filling a dimpled handle glass with the local bitter, after pulling off half a pint or so from the lines. He had managed to brush back his thick crop of black hair, tinged with grey. It still glistened damp from a shower. Also, he'd shaved though there was a cut on his neck, just below the solid, square chin, which he'd covered with a scrap of tissue.
He was a well-built bull of a man, except for that telling paunch – too much of his own produce, Stone suspected. Still it was a good advert of sorts, he'd never trusted thin chefs or publicans.
It looked a fine pint, too.
“A sandwich, you say?”
“Well, yes, I'm just passing through. I thought cheese and pickle perhaps.”
The landlord shrugged. He had on bright-red braces, well stretched over a red and white striped shirt, above baggy, burgundy-red, corduroy trousers. Adding to the flamboyant look was a red-checked cravat. His cheeks and neck also glowed red.
“Not a veggie, are you?”
Stone studied the man's strong, almost coarse features: a 'proud', well-spread nose - if you wanted to be kind; bushy, black eyebrows and weathered, ruddy skin – all lit by some intense, dark-blue eyes glittering intelligently and with some humour, or mischief.
“Thought not,” said the publican. “I was going to say, there's some pheasant if you'd prefer – left over from yesterday's game pie. Drop of champagne gravy – makes a grand sandwich.”
Stone grinned and nodded. “Talked me into it.”
His host looked pleased. “I'll have the same,” he volunteered, ignoring Stone's efforts to free his cash and cards from a back pocket and disappearing into a back kitchen.
Pheasant, champagne gravy – sounded encouraging, whatever the price. Also, yesterday's game pie had a nice ring to it, too. Stone sipped his pint and was equally impressed.
Taking his drink over to the settle seat he'd fancied from the window, he sat down and stared reflectively into the fire's embers. Perhaps a room at The Water's Edge might be an enjoyable experience for a day or two, while he looked for longer-term accommodation from this cosy base.
His attention rose to a blackboard above the fireplace, with an impressive array of specials - for starters and main courses, plus wholesome puddings. The host knew his business, at least when it came to cooking – and the cask ale.
Prices were top end, though, but not when compared with a couple of nights Stone had recently spent in London, being entertained by his agent Miles Waverley. He could hardly complain, though, as Waverley had been good enough to put him up in a spare bedroom of his Georgian home overlooking Hampstead Heath.
“Here we go!” said the landlord cheerily, coming through a bar hatch with a laden tray. He set out a large plate with a generously packed sandwich of thick, rustic white bread. There was a pot of relish and a separate simple side-salad of rocket leaves, green pepper and red onion slices with some oil; plus some solid cutlery wrapped up in a white, cotton napkin.
There was also a small, silver tankard with some ale but this turned out to be the publican's own as, once he had set out Stone's meal, he raised it and leaned against the fire's mantelpiece.
“Cheers,” he muttered and Stone raised his own, half-finished pint. “That's onion and plum chutney, by the way, home-made; that cob fairly soaks up gravy.”
Stone took a mouthful of the sandwich and nodded appreciatively, then tasted the chutney with equal pleasure. The whole dish was delicious. He felt impressed. “Excellent.”
“Good as leftovers go!” The landlord drank up.
“Well, I'll leave you to it, there's some bridge players come in early afternoon – in the middle snug, better get it set up for them.” He turned away. “I'll leave you to eat in peace – sorry about the misunderstanding, earlier.”
“That's all right,” Stone told him, adding, “but I'd appreciate another pint before you leave.”
“Certainly, Bluebird again?
“I'll try the Hawkshead.”
The landlord brought it over to him. “It's their red, makes a change.”
Stone nodded, pleased. “Tell me, you've a sign for rooms. I was thinking about staying a couple of nights – if you've vacancies.”
“This time of year – sure!” However, he didn't look entirely pleased at the suggestion.
Stone felt obliged to explain further. “I was hoping to get something longer term, maybe a caravan.” His host frowned. “They used to have statics up at a farm near here – Cruck Barn, as I recall. Are they still there?” He took another deep swallow to finish his ale, then eyed the next brimming pint-full. At this rate he wouldn't be fit to drive in any case.
“The Bates' place? Long gone,” said the publican. “No caravans or camping there now.” He shook his head. “Can't stand the tinny things, blocking up roads and spoiling the landscape.”
Stone pulled a thoughtful, non-committal face and nodded, just to be sociable. To such an inn-keeper it was all cheap competition, he supposed.
“There's a campsite and caravan park a few miles from here, but bugger-all else there, just some unwholesome clubhouse and fields of vans in the middle of nowhere.”
Stone had to grin at the dour description.
“Thought you were just passing through?” The landlord raised his thick eyebrows questioningly.
“Well,” Stone sighed, settling back in his seat. “Fact is, I might do some writing; want somewhere quiet, with a desk or table and so on, preferably near the lake. He looked hopefully at his host and shrugged.
The publican grunted, non-committal too, but looked a little more interested.
“Finish your lunch,” he instructed, with an air of having made a decision. “I'll set up that snug, then we'll have a little chat.” He smiled and looked into his empty silver tankard. “Not a bad drop this red ale, huh?” He laughed then went out through the bar's entrance door to the corridor, after leaving his tankard on the counter.
Stone shrugged again, then returned to his fulsome sandwich, also now trying the green salad with its dressing. That, too, was good. It was said, Stone recalled, that you could judge a restaurant by the quality of its smallest offering, the side-salad.
Another indicator of decent standards was a clean loo, preferably well aired and regularly checked.
Looking round, he doubted his host and this old place would win awards for its dusting or, possibly, hygiene levels but, then, neither would the Greek island he'd just spent months on before returning to 'home'.
He was also thinking of Josie, whom he'd stayed with for two nights after coming north from London. She'd made up a sofa-bed for him but, predictably, he'd never slept in it. There was still chemistry between them. Was that also why he fancied somewhere more private than a pub's B&B?
Josie had actually been in a relationship, before kindly offering to put him up. In truth, he'd only wanted some company for the evening, preferably female, after deciding to break his journey north at Lancaster. The sofa-bed had been her suggestion, also that he phone her once 'fixed up' in the Lakes.
Obviously, her latest relationship was floundering – like the last, longer enduring one she'd had. However, in the end, that had been a great disappointment to her too, poor girl.
Well, he'd see. It didn't do to get involved. He'd been taught that many times, but had he learned?
“Right!” said the landlord, returning, then leaning over the bar and refilling his tankard. He came over and, seeing Stone's empty plates, sat down opposite.
“There is something that might suit you,” he said, with a grin. “A bit of self-catering,” he added, then raised his tankard in a salute, as well as those bushy eyebrows above his darkly sparkling eyes.
“THING is,” Gordon Corrigan said, conspiratorially, “times have been hard – what with the bloody pandemic over last summer then a poor Christmas. I've had to let staff go.”
Stone nodded. They'd at last introduced themselves; while he had explained his own circumstances to his now genial host: as a 'writer', recently returned from the Greek islands after packing up everything in Britain - back at what had long been home, Lancashire's Fylde coast.
He had not told Corrigan of his rather chequered journalistic career before, with its freelance successes and failures, nor the tragedies which had driven him abroad. Neither had Stone inquired into his host's personal past or career before this old inn with impressive meals. The man clearly owned the extraordinary, if rather ramshackle place - and they had both been divorced. That seemed sufficient for now.
Corrigan smiled then confessed, “I don't really relish having to get up and cook you a breakfast every morning – or come up and tidy your bed and bathroom.” He raised those thick eyebrows, pausing.
Stone merely grunted, sympathetically.
“I'd rather get up at dawn and go fishing – it would be more productive too, than one paying guest. If I got more in somehow, now people are at last holidaying again, then staff would be needed – follow?”
“Well, yes, that's business,” Stone pointed out.
It was Corrigan's turn to grunt, this time doubtfully. “Tell you the truth, old man, it's rather worse than that. If I did open up fully again the roof would need fixing, plus a few expensive plumbing jobs – then, of course, redecoration, advertising etcetera.” He groaned and shrugged, then lifted his tankard.
“Mind if I smoke?” asked the landlord, pulling out the fairly long stub of a thick cigar from his shirt's breast pocket.
“You're the boss,” Stone also pointed out.
Corrigan lit it from the fire with a coil of newspaper he'd ripped from a nearby coal shuttle, settling back again.
He sighed, “I can get by, just, but only ticking over, you understand.” He sat forward and rather chummily confided, “Grow or make everything here, pretty much – hunt the game, hook the fish, even plant vegetables. Got a damn great freezer out there,” he nodded toward the back garden, “plus vegetable patch, fishing gear. Only the gun's locked away upstairs.”
Stone grinned. “The country life, eh?”
Corrigan nodded. “That's how I like it; leave the breakfasts, lunch-time 'sarnies' and cleaning to the hired hands, when I had 'em. Now it's just drinkers and people willing to eat what I happen to be cooking.”
“I see.” Stone thought it all sounded rather hopeless, in terms of a business plan, but did have some sympathy. He'd rather got used to being self-sufficient, himself, back on the Greek island with, seemingly, his own cove. Fortunately, though, he'd had a beautiful woman to cook for him and some lovely company.
“In fact, that's why I shouted at you, when I noticed you prowling through my undergrowth!”
Corrigan laughed, then explained, “We had some tinkers, so-called bloody travellers, through here – nicking everything, even my vegetables the cheeky sods! As I said, there's a lot of good stuff in my freezer; got my own generator, too. Wouldn't want that disappearing, plus my fishing gear; other things too.”
“I understand, no offence taken.” Stone eyed his near-empty second pint. He was surprised at being mistaken for a gypsy but, then, he was dark, a lone wandering male and, some said, appeared threatening.
“Good. Well,” Corrigan said, standing with a groan then taking both Stone's glass and his tankard to the bar, “on the other hand,” he continued, raising his voice with his back turned, “I have something you could rent.”
He turned, now back behind the bar and pouring them more beer. “That cottage you saw – out there beside the lake.”
Stone was a little taken aback. He frowned. “It is a cottage then? I thought maybe a boathouse.” He didn't say 'hut', not wishing to offend his host.
“Certainly!” Corrigan insisted, coming back.
He put down their drinks. “Got its own generator, too, and running water. Needs a spruce up but weather-tight enough; got a wood stove and fire, plus there's a paraffin heater and so on – all mod cons.”
Hardly, Stone suspected, but had to smile as he lifted his fresh pint in thanks. He'd reached a mutually beneficial, well-rounded deal on his recent island idyll. Might he do the same in the Lakes, given the eccentric nature of this unusual, though enjoyable place and its off-beat owner?
Stone took a long drink, aware of Corrigan eagerly waiting. “How much a month?”
There was a thoughtful sigh as Corrigan's business brain was almost visibly cranked into action. “Well, cottages go for about 400 a week round here.”
Stone raised his eyebrows. “I'd have to inspect it, but don't want to pay that.” Yet, he realised now, even a caravan might cost toward £300, then probably more per month in high summer and holidays.
“Hmm, well yes, of course,” Corrigan muttered, shifting on his chair a little uncomfortably. “As I said, it's perfectly habitable but could, possibly, do with a bit of TLC, I suppose. It was the gardener's, when I had one – a widower, nice old boy, God bless him.”
Stone smiled. “Tell me, err, Gordon, just how much would your roof and repairs cost, if you don't mind me asking?”
“Well, hmm.” Corrigan did now look as though he minded revealing such details, but was clearly totting up costs nonetheless. “Round here we help each other, you should understand. For example, there are three prices for my food and drink – one for visitors, another, less of course, for locals, then even less for the old locals – because they simply won't pay any more.”
Stone returned his amused grin.
“But in return, we get similar generosity – with both money and services and, well, with a good spirit. A lot of the work would be done on that basis. It would have to be. But, well,” he looked at Stone quite openly and concluded, “I'd be needing £15,000, just to get up to scratch again here and ready for full business.”
Stone nodded. He didn't want to add that the man clearly had got to rock bottom. The build-up of dust, lack of visitor signage and general malaise spoke volumes. But so did the host's abilities, handsome fayre and that generosity of spirit already glimpsed.
“Why don't I take a look and we might start working some arrangement out,” Stone offered.
The bushy eyebrows lifted, Corrigan's head rose too, silently, as he assessed Stone. Then he smiled.
It was half an hour and another pint later when Stone finally went out into the now sharper air and back through the gate between what were labelled, on rickety carved signposts, as 'Beer Garden' and then 'Retreat'.
He had left the landlord to serve two groups of four who'd come in to play bridge and have mid-afternoon snacks and drinks.
Stone felt tired as he made his way along the dirt and gravel path toward the real water's edge but, finally standing in that clearing, its air and beauty braced him once again. This was a stunning view of the now placid lake, deserted but for drifts of smoke from a few distant farmsteads across the water.
The 'cottage' itself appeared more like a shack, as he'd first thought. A rowing boat was tied close by, beside the short jetty, and there was a barn-like wooden structure which probably could house it; as well as being a storage area with tools and chopped wood.
Stone stepped up to the narrow, wooden verandah and small entrance door of the main cottage. Outside it was another of Corrigan's hand-carved signs. It read, 'The Resting Place'.
He smiled. Well, that was what he needed now, to rest. The thought of returning later for a fine dinner by that open fire in the cosy bar also appealed.
However, still uncertain, he turned and looked back through the wooded 'Retreat', as Corrigan called his overgrown rear land. There was no sign of the allotment or outbuildings for freezer and generator. No doubt it was all there, somewhere amidst the trees and wildly growing rhododendrons. From here a person couldn't even see the main inn any more.
Stone looked back across the glass-like surface of Coniston Water and its breathtaking hillside panorama. It was as though he had this whole beautiful vista to himself. Then, to his surprise, Stone saw he wasn't alone. Perched just feet away, on a stump of the jetty, was a stone-still barn owl. He remained as still himself, transfixed, watching the ghostly, flat face; then saw those pitiless black eyes blink once at him.
Stone smiled, then quietly pushed open the unlocked front door of the shack.
The interior construction, like the outside, was a mix of logs, brick and slate. It looked tidy enough and would be cosy if the wood-burner was lit. For now, Stone took a match from the box on the mantelpiece and lit an old, upright paraffin heater.
There was a well-used two-seater couch with wooden frame; an inviting, if rather sunken armchair with patchwork covers, and a rug over the bare floorboards. By the large front window, looking out on to the lake, was a dining table complete with a couple of straight back chairs, their seats softened a little with what looked to be home-knitted cushions.
It would do, he realised, and Corrigan had said it had a generator for the lighting, as well as running water. With that in mind he inspected the small kitchen, then a rudimentary shower and the lavatory.
All seemed habitable, for one man at least; even rather snug and quaint but, as he turned and stood uncertainly before the window again, it was the incomparable view which made up his mind.
Besides, he had drunk too much to drive further and, Stone reminded himself, he still had his Land Rover Freelander to unpack, then a fire to start. The prospect made Stone feel like a freelander himself which, he realised, was a good start.
STONE woke hazily to the unexpected smell of woodsmoke. But that was not unpleasant. He turned, rather stiffly, in the unfamiliar three-quarter bed – as Corrigan had described it last evening.
Yes, last evening – that came back vaguely with the dazed thumping in his head. He'd joined an early-evening darts match and then, after the players had left, enjoyed a hearty steak and kidney pie. It had been served with roast potatoes and other 'home-grown' veg in Corrigan's thick onion-gravy; followed by a steamed pudding with custard. Even its jam was Corrigan's own.
The last thing Stone remembered was a quiet session on the inn's malt whiskies in a firelit back snug with Corrigan, as they settled their terms.
Stone shook his head warily. He never got on well with whisky and wanted to reassure himself over the financial arrangements. Dehydrated, he got up and poured himself a glass of water in the kitchen, then returned and stood momentarily by the front window.
Had he really given the man a cheque for £3,000 and promised £12,000 more? Slightly shocked, Stone stepped out on to his small verandah, needing the sharp morning air. There was a mist rising from the lake and it seemed very early and eerily quiet; just the sudden shriek of a kite or some other hunting bird – that owl?
They'd agreed 12 months, which Corrigan was going to ask his solicitor to draw up a contract towards. After the initial £3,000, Stone was to pay a further £1,000 per month, £15,000 in all.
He swallowed then breathed deeply; the air was clearing his hungover senses. Well, he could afford it. But had it been wise? They had also agreed that Stone would cater for himself but, when he did dine or drink at the inn, it would be at low 'local' prices. Also, he could raid the vegetable allotment and, to a reasonable extent, the freezer, when necessary.
There would also be some eggs daily available from hens Corrigan also kept; plus access to his excellent home-made bread.
Both had also agreed that, should Stone's 'shack' need attention, repairs to that would come first.
Finally, it was decided that the contract could be terminated without further loss or cost by either party, provided reasonable notice and cause were given.
Well, Stone thought, £300 a week without further bills and with use of Corrigan's boat – plus allotment, freezer etcetera – didn't sound too bad. A couple of nights in a hotel could cost him that.
Any further doubts disappeared as he now turned, hearing a twig break near by. Then Stone caught his breath, as he stared back into the clearing. A Red Deer fawn was standing alone, just yards away; its body alert, with dark, soft nose twitching tentatively at the morning scents. It was spellbinding.
Stone studied the trusting, wild creature and their eyes met, then the fawn glanced away quite unhurriedly and, in a single agile bound, disappeared into the bushes of Corrigan's Retreat.
After a few seconds, still rather wonder-struck, Stone went quietly – and faintly dazed - back into his 'shack', as he'd decided to call Gordon Corrigan's 'Resting Place'.
His mind now on fresh endeavours, Stone went through again toer the kitchen. There he splashed some water on to his face and towelled it dry, promising himself a hot shower and shave later. There was something he felt impelled to do; it was a skill he had not used for years, perhaps since school.
From his luggage he found his writing aids, then a block of plain cartridge paper he used for notes. Tearing off a sheet and using a large hardback notebook as his easel, Stone went back out and sat down on a low, flattened stump beside the jetty. There he roughly sketched the clearing before him, then added his memory of the fawn, when it had turned, watching him.
Well, he concluded, it wasn't really accurate but did catch something of the magic of what he'd seen. Stone had always done quite well at art. Perhaps he'd also get some water-paints; the surrounding lakeland offered ideal landscapes for that medium.
He stood up and stretched then, after another admiring look at the misty lake, turned to go back indoors; then halted again. Now approaching, with considerable noise through the bushes, was Corrigan himself. The man looked troubled, last evening's bright, jovial face now darkly cast and brooding.
“Morning,” Stone called out and stood still, waiting, letting his arm with the artwork drop to his side. His landlord appeared surprised to see him.
“Ah, morning,” Corrigan said, almost absent-mindedly. He had stopped a few feet away. Today he was very well wrapped up in a padded, country-style coat and boots. He stared beyond Stone to the rowing boat moored at the jetty.
“You okay?” Stone asked, concerned. Had the man changed his mind or, even, forgotten he was here and what they'd arranged? It had been a long session.
Corrigan nodded but didn't smile. Then, seeming to remember his manners, asked, “Did you sleep okay?”
“Fine; more of a coma, really.”
Corrigan now managed a smile but only for an instant. His blue eyes had lost their dark, devilish sparkle today.
“I was just going for a sail. Been a bad morning.” He didn't seem inclined to say more.
Stone glanced at his watch. It was still only a little past eight – a bad morning, already? He frowned. Corrigan managed another half smile. “Helps me relax, on the water; trail a line and might even catch some supper – there's a sail, too.”
“Why a bad morning?” Stone asked.
Corrigan stared a while before he quietly answered. “There's been a sudden death, probably an accident – or so I suspect. Up near that farm you mentioned.”
“As it used to be; near there – a woman killed, a good neighbour, I liked her.”
“How'd it happen?”
Corrigan shrugged. “Well, that's for the police to find out. They just wanted me to examine the body.”
“Really?” Stone was mystified.
Corrigan grunted. “Used to be a medic – surgeon. They employ me odd times, when the police doctor's unavailable; like today.”
“I see.” The man was full of surprises.
Corrigan seemed to be pulling himself out of his shock, or whatever it was troubling him.
“One of the Bates' family, from the old farm you mentioned.” He smiled grimly. “The only one who had stayed on round here – the daughter, Alison.”
Stone didn't say anything, suddenly taken aback, but his face must have betrayed the memories.
“Remember her?” Corrigan asked, curiously. His eyes had flickered with interest again, brought back to the present from his earlier dark mood.
“I do,” Stone confessed, shifting his position to lean on a post by the verandah. “Though we were just kids back then.” Corrigan was nodding but watching him fixedly, as though to glean anything he could from Stone's now set, serious features.
“An accident, you say?” Stone prompted.
“Hmm, yes, seems so. Nasty gash to the back of the head, but she'd almost survived that – perhaps from a stumble in that damn, dark barn of hers.”
Corrigan sighed then, watching for Stone's reaction again, added, “She'd managed to crawl towards the barn doorway, where her jacket had been hanging, half pulled it down – so it looked to me – perhaps to try and phone. Her mobile was nearby on the ground.”
The shook his head, glancing away. There had been a glint of tears forming in his eyes, Stone felt sure. He was surprised, for a doctor to react so.
“Well, we'll know more soon,” Corrigan said more gruffly, now avoiding Stone's scrutiny and walking toward the moored boat
Stone watched as Corrigan busied himself with untying the rowing boat, then stepped in and sat down, taking up its oars. Only as he was edging away from the jetty did he look up and back at Stone again.
“Glad you settled in okay,” he said, forcing a smile, then pulled back the oars to quietly disappear into that mist still hanging over the dark lake. The silence and chill it seemed to cast was oddly unsettling.
Stone went slowly back into his shack. He stared at the remains of last night's fire but his mind had gone back almost three decades, to a smiling teenage girl who had transformed his young life.
* * *
THE following chapters are from our latest published novel, The Golden Door (also see Books page). The front and back covers are also shown below. Chapters from other books follow below.
The Grand Hotel
THE island appeared on the horizon like a mirage upon a powder-blue sea. As the hydrofoil flew onward, that distant terrain rose upward and spread; the hill at its centre growing higher; its tapering sides reaching further out into the Aegean.
From the stern's viewing deck Stone could now see a huddle of dwellings clinging to the hillsides, until just below a rounded, green peak, then thinning out along the sides above scattered boats moored out at sea.
To west and east of the central harbour, where his ferry was heading, buildings shimmered in quivering lines, their glistening white or sandy-gold stonework reflecting sunshine beneath red-tiled roofs.
How many years was it since he'd last come to the island, twenty? It didn't matter. Instead, he thought of the adventurous girl met here, like a mermaid on that rocky outcrop in a small cove of shingle beach, where only a white-washed chapel stood, Greek Orthodox of course. She'd been completely naked but unabashed.
What would the priest have thought of them?
Stone smiled, letting the wind on the fast-moving vessel blow his now grey-flecked, dark hair; tasting the brine of the sea on his lips, enjoying its spray which refreshed his face and exhilarated his ravaged, tired soul.
Yes, this is what he had come for; it was not such a foolish flight of fancy after all. Last evening, staying at a nondescript hotel near Piraeus, he'd wondered at this reckless departure from all he knew and had previously cared for so much.
Now, however, he felt a wave of freedom and, these days, rare excitement, as the hydrofoil slowed, sinking lower on to the water for their final approach into port; while the sunshine now embraced and warmed him.
Stone studied his destination anew, as more accustomed passengers prepared to disembark with their goods. Yes, it was the same long, concrete and stone jetty, then a pathway of stone paving so worn over ages it shone like marble, curving into the small, rounded harbour.
From there the town had opened into a square of two-storey tavernas, homes and commercial buildings. To the west was a rambling, blue and white-painted café he remembered, from sitting awaiting ferries, much frequented by old men sipping coffee and ouzo, smoking and chatting, watching others.
To the east, Stone saw to his relief, was the Grand Hotel, rising above that steep adjoining mass of the main dock used by large cargo and cruise ships. Standing there on the wharf's wide expanse was the statue of Bouboulina, freedom fighter and fleet admiral who'd driven out the Turks, still staring out to sea.
Further along the coastlines, he recalled, the atmosphere grew quieter. To the west was the Old Harbour with its boatyards, to the east a lagoon with smaller fishing boats than those anchored in this harbour where they were now pulling alongside.
Stone joined the end of a queue waiting to disembark; locals for the most part by the look of them, returning from shopping or business trips to Athens. March was too early for tourists. On the Flying Dolphin hydrofoils, from Zea dock, the mainland was less than an hour from here; whereas on the normal boat ferries it was more like three hours.
He nodded to the crew member he'd earlier tipped to help with his travel trunk, then lifted his shoulder bag and went ashore. They were all smart, these Flying Dolphin crews, and prided themselves on punctuality and efficiency. Someone had said the line was Russian owned, but Stone wasn't sure of that.
The deckhand, in dark trousers, white shirt and gold epaulettes, spoke in Greek with the deck officer then heaved Stone's trunk on to a nearby trolley. They then walked in tandem along the jetty, as fresh passengers boarded for the Dolphin's onward trip.
At the end of the jetty, a local porter left the ouzo café to take over Stone's luggage, a cigarette still dangling from his lips. No smoking restrictions or health and safety worries here, it seemed. Yet they must know of the pandemic fears that were building.
It was not yet mid-morning but already hot, though with a welcome sea breeze. Stone took off his jacket and, glancing back, saw the Dolphin deckhand, his helper, untying a remaining mooring rope then jumping aboard the elegant hydrofoil before it eased away out to sea.
Yes, the air was different, cleaner. The stares of the old men at their tables still as lingering and unhurried; these much-worn paving stones dazzling in welcome; the town quiet, gathering itself for another day under the sun in the timeless Aegean.
Stone smiled, strolling contentedly now toward the old but impressive hotel towering above and awaiting him; toward his new future, for how long, he had no idea or care.
On the Grand's terrace, raised above the coast road and wide expanse of shipping wharf, a waiter was opening parasols over a few tables. In the past, there had been a grand piano out here. It was one of the memories, that piano played by a white-jacketed musician among a handful of candle-lit tables, which had prompted his choice of hotel.
Not that Stone was aware of many other hotels here on the island, certainly nothing of this size or style.
Back then, on his only previous visit, he'd observed the elegant scene, reminiscent of a more cultivated past, from a distance – usually while walking toward the town's bars, while dining cheaply himself on a take-away souvlaki, or roasted chicken breast, from street vendors and small stores open late.
Now, though, the Grand appeared rather tawdry, outdated and unloved. There was no sign of the piano.
He followed his luggage into a large reception hall which needed repainting and had the cavernous, empty feel of a rail or bus station entered too late – after the last service had gone - without passengers or, in this case, other guests. Even the old ceiling fans were still.
There was an echo, accentuating the otherwise endemic silence, as his porter rang a bell upon the reception desk. Then the man, still smoking, turned and nodded politely toward Stone, awaiting payment. At least any fears of no-vacancies had gone, in this now barren, old edifice. Its fall from grace was bleak.
The receptionist, when she appeared at last, was young, however, with a bright smile and curious eyes.
Stone finished tipping the porter then got out his British Passport and credit card and smiled in return at the waiting woman.
She had that thick, raven-black hair of the Greeks, with auburn highlights perhaps henna-dyed. Her fulsome locks were pinned up but strands had escaped, curling down against her cheek and tanned neck. Her oval face had strikingly dark eyebrows and full, heavily made-up lips against her olive skin. She wore businesslike tortoiseshell-framed spectacles but they suited her.
“Hello,” she said, noting the nationality on the proffered passport and smiling again. She also eyed the considerable trunk standing beside Stone.
“Morning,” he responded, returning her warm smile again, happy to be at the end of his journey for now. “Have you a room, or suite perhaps, overlooking the sea? I'm just one.” It sounded sad, he knew.
The receptionist nodded, her reddened lips curling again in a softer smile; those black eyes lingering a little longer now upon his own.
She was intrigued, clearly – and, he sensed, a little 'interested', as they say. Stone instinctively glanced down at her hand and saw no telling ring, just gold bracelets. Their eyes met again, with a hint of shared understanding now, even amusement.
“For how long, sir?” She stared, expectantly.
Stone shrugged. “I'm sorry. Does it matter? I've really no idea.”
The receptionist laughed, a delightfully full laugh in this depressing, otherwise empty hall, then also shrugged. “No,” she told him, turning a register for him to sign, “we can accommodate you.”
Stone nodded and signed in: name, nationality, then paused over home address and, finally, left a dash.
The receptionist glanced at the entry as she turned the book back toward herself, then at him once more but, despite hesitating, thought better of asking more it seemed. Instead she reached for a key and pressed a buzzer beneath the counter
“I'll get help for your luggage, sir.” She handed him the weighty key. “The Poseidon Suite, daily tariff 120 euro, if that is acceptable. Perhaps, if you stay long, you may speak with the manager.”
Stone nodded and thanked her, turning as a small man in dark trousers, white shirt and slightly soiled white jacket appeared for the trunk. It was the waiter who'd been setting up tables outside.
There was a cage lift. The Poseidon was on the top, third floor, its grand sitting room windows opening on to a balcony, the Aegean and distant hills of the Peloponnese mainland beyond.
Stone stood alone, after the porter had been tipped and left; staring out from there for some time, not letting his recent or earlier past encroach upon his good mood, a sense at last of escape.
Then he went inside, to shower and unpack a little before his only conscious plan - ordering a chilled beer to enjoy on his balcony.
His new life had begun, that was all he knew and that mattered for now. He was as free as his past would let him be.
IT was already becoming dark when Stone at last left his spacious but rather austere suite, the Poseidon.
Although comfortable enough, its furniture was old and the only wall hangings, gilt-framed paintings of the sea, were faded. He felt rather as though stranded in a sparse gallery or store room of antiques, long forgotten from habitation.
The plumbing, too, was dated and rather unsettling in its labouring noises. Still, he felt better for a shower and long rest, even some sleep on the enormous bed though, again, there were odd, complaining noises from its springs.
After his earlier bottled beer and some more unpacking, Stone had ordered lunch – a simple cheese and ham omelette with salad, served upon the stately, wrought-iron balcony. It was that which had convinced him not to dine this evening at the hotel. The omelette had been dry and the salad tired and too oily. He'd read somewhere, Stone had recalled while picking at it, that you could judge a restaurant by the quality and freshness of the side salad, its merest offering.
However, after nodding to an older woman now on reception, he did venture out on to the terrace, glancing into the vast, rather empty hotel restaurant on his way. Even at seven in the evening, there were only a couple of tables occupied with diners.
Outside it was equally quiet, just an elderly, bearded man of florid complexion wearing whites – even a gold-braided captain's peaked cap – and his well-dressed female companion, presumably his wife.
They were drinking coffee from a silver service and, upon noticing Stone watching, the man had let out a surprising bark or, rather, a short and throaty roar, like a big cat's warning; but then both had continued with their conversation, as though all was normal.
Bemused, Stone headed down the many stone steps to the esplanade above the dock. To his other side, the quaint harbour was now lit with strings of lights over more, similarly vacant tables of bars and cafés.
Perhaps he'd come too early to the island.
Even so, some lonely, uncertain impulse made him shy away from going into town. He could faintly hear Greek village music, so popular here, but did not want crowds, or too many curious eyes, any questions.
Instead he turned and walked towards the dark stillness, heading to the east where he could see some lights from villas rising above the quiet coastal road. Out at sea there were occasional boat lanterns and, on the distant point perhaps a mile away, more lights beckoned too – hopefully some quiet restaurants.
He was soon alone with just the sound of the sea, gently lapping only a few feet down against the low wall skirting the roadside. There was little tide here, he recalled. To his other side, as he strolled, there was a high stone retaining wall against the hillside and, above that, some large villas and smaller houses. The villas were old, supposedly Venetian.
Some homes were screened by pines, while there were also palm trees dotted along the roadside.
Occasionally, built into or out from the hillside wall, there was a shop or store of some kind, still open, with one or two locals inside or sitting out at lantern-lit tables having a drink. They nodded or just stared.
One or two other walkers also passed Stone on the narrowing, unlit roadway, politely calling out, “Yassas,” or “Kalispera.”
Then one of the horse-drawn 'buggy' taxis passed, the driver up front ringing its bell, a lantern swinging to the horse's trotting rhythm, throwing shadows and light across a couple of people sat inside its open carriage.
It seemed, from what he'd read, there was still no motor traffic to speak of on the island, excepting a couple of old, white Mercedes used as taxis and for special occasions, plus the odd utility vehicle.
The islanders did use motorbikes and scooters, but these were banned from the coastal road in the evenings, when people sat or strolled out. Anything other than bicycles were restricted then to back roads.
The occasional ring of that bell was the only sound now, in the distance, as Stone walked on toward those distant lights; along with the gentle lapping of the sea. There was the scent of herbs, too, from the roadside bushes or gardens above of dimly-lit homes.
Yes, it was a different world, quite magical. All the trouble of home seemed far away. The fears of the coming Covid virus and 'lockdowns' unspoken here or, probably, met with a shrug of indifference.
Yet, these islands and mainland had been the seat of wisdom and civilisation once. That was another thing which had drawn him back: wanting to understand, recapture something lost since his youth.
There was only moonlight to guide him now.
Stone walked on, enjoying the sea air and its occasional spray, the calming sight of the lantern-lit, small craft left moored out at sea, ready for fishermen in early morning. There were overturned rowing boats stored against the hillside wall. He must be nearing the lagoon by now, yet there was only a shuttered house on the roadside, standing alone, all in darkness.
Stone began to wonder at his memory, although he'd read up again about the island and its neighbours. Also, his doubts returned over the wisdom of coming here so early in the year, perhaps being stranded too.
He walked on, trudging now. Then he began to realise the distant lights were getting no nearer, nor that shadowy point. It seemed an optical illusion. They were still a mile or two away, perhaps some new development but, clearly, too far to walk.
At that moment of doubt, however, the path he was on dog-legged left and he saw the lagoon just as he'd remembered; its quaintly lit surrounding buildings overshadowed by dark hillsides, some pontoons and moored boats upon the silky blackness of the water – all so stunningly calm, restful.
There was the sound of classical music, too, drifting across with the land-filled breeze here of herbs. Stone smiled in delight and walked on slowly.
The first place open was a fish restaurant, he vaguely remembered, always busy with locals. Tonight there were just one or two people inside, seemingly clearing up, and outside a small, lantern-lit group on the awning-covered decking over stilts. They were at simple tables just above the water and opposite the restaurant premises; all men, locals, their dishes and plates now finished with, but still drinking.
Stone smiled at the curious but welcoming nods from these ruddy-faced men in their work clothes, as he passed by, hearing their laughter resume, envying their careless bonhomie but seeking peaceful escape.
He followed the sound of the violin strings, some soft piano prelude, passing still more overturned row-boats, one or two huddled homes, a family dining on their terrace, where a dog barked but was silenced.
The last building, before some storage sheds and a sloping jetty and wharf, was the origin of the music – Beethoven, he'd now decided. It was an elegant restaurant, its name 'Laguna' picked out in large white shells above an entrance arch festooned in vines and bougainvillea. It looked quite lovely but was very quiet. Just one couple were dining inside.
Stone entered and politely wished them good evening in Greek. There were only several tables, all otherwise unoccupied, but the whole interior had been decorated busily and in some style.
The floor appeared to be marble, with an elaborate mosaic showing ancient sailing vessels; there were Greek gods picked out in plaster and paint around the walls, ships' clocks and other brass paraphernalia, fishing nets hanging from the ceiling beneath glistening but dimmed chandeliers.
The man spoke rapidly in Greek then, seeing Stone shrug, said, “We're not open yet.” He nodded down at their richly laid out table with what appeared to be fillet steaks, baked potatoes and a terrine of vegetables, plus a large carafe of red wine, then added, “We have our meal.”
“Yes, sorry,” said Stone, disappointed. He'd barely eaten half the hotel's poor lunch-time offering and nothing since. The aroma from their steaks and a kitchen just visible beyond the nearby, well-stocked bar, had sharpened his appetite.
The woman, a blonde though with dark, watchful eyes and sharp features, spoke quietly but with an air of reprimand. It seemed to give the man pause for thought, as he lowered his cutlery and frowned. He was dark, handsome and a few years younger than the woman, who wore many gold ornaments including rings and was presumably the owner, or his wife or partner.
“Did you want to eat, or just drink?” he asked.
Stone smiled. It was hardly a welcome from a good host but better than just departing. “Both.”
The couple exchanged more conversation in Greek and the woman rose, smiling now at Stone before disappearing into the kitchen.
“My wife asks if you would care to have a drink and wait, then we can serve you food when we have finished our meal.”
The host, proprietor or whatever, set his squared chin and eyed Stone with interest, waiting. He was perhaps in his 30s, slightly younger than Stone, and very smart. So smart that Stone was pleased he'd taken care to dress well, if casually, himself.
“Thank you, I'd like that.”
The man got up without further ado, going behind the bar. “Beer, or wine perhaps?”
Stone considered, wondering how long he'd have to wait. “Both please, large.”
This, at least, appeared to please his host. To Stone's surprise, since there were draught beers on the bar, the proprietor went to a large fridge. But then he produced a handle glass misted with frost and carefully dispensed one of the counter's Greek lagers, before finally filling a large glass generously with red wine.
He brought them round on a gilt tray and hesitated, “Inside or out?”
“Outside, I think.” Stone didn't wish to sit watching them eat, waiting. Besides, he still wanted to be alone, unquestioned, left in peace.
They went outside, the man calling out something to his wife inside. There were a few tables immediately by the restaurant but also more spaced along a pontoon which Stone remembered fondly. He pointed toward it, out in the lagoon.
His host nodded, then led the way across wide boarding suspended just inches above the still water. Then he wiped a table meticulously with his free hand and finally lowered the tray and placed both drinks. As Stone took a chair, his host also lit the wick of a lamp.
“I shall bring menu later,” he promised.
“The steak looked good,” Stone said.
His host nodded, then laughed, again pleased.
Stone watched him go back into his restaurant, rather admiring the man's style, independence – except perhaps for his wife, and attention to detail. The music carried too, now accompanied by the occasional gentle splash as a fish rose to an insect in the dark waters.
He took a long, grateful drink of the chilled beer, which was excellent – everything his earlier drink at the hotel, on the balcony, had failed to be. Above the Laguna sign in its shells, he noticed now, was another picked out in golden letters – The Water Of Love. Stone smiled, now savouring the warming red wine, too. This, after all, had been worth the walk.
A memory, too, now stirred and further warmed him, as he waited.
HER name had been Jodie, from Melbourne, and she was exploring Europe on the cheap, working when she could or needed more funds. She had been slightly older than Stone and also travelling alone.
Jodie had short hair, an impressive, all-over suntan and a beautiful figure. It had been quite something, a first for Stone, meeting someone new, attractive and talking to them completely naked.
He supposed, as he drank more of the chilled beer, she would now be in her early 40s. Back then he'd been approaching 21, a milestone - hence the urge to travel. His mother's death in a road accident had still hung over Stone, though why he blamed himself even he couldn't explain. He had not been with her then but, perhaps, that was the very reason for his guilt.
But now, on this gently floating pontoon in the languorous and scented air of this moonlit lagoon, he did not want to mar his peace of mind and quiet cheerfulness; not with old, bad memories - particularly knowing now what he was later to return to, upon going back home from Greece, by then 'a man', at 21.
Instead Stone thought of Jodie, whom he'd met as in a fairytale, sunbathing in that otherwise deserted cove on this very island. They had not eaten together here, by the 'water of love'. That had been someone else from that memorable time.
However, Jodie had known all the cheaper places to eat – and many of the local people. She'd been working for weeks here on this island Stone soon nicknamed Paradiseo; cleaning rooms or serving drinks, off and on as opportunity and the mood took her.
When they met, Stone had been walking alone, determined to investigate more of the island and not just be bussed about with other tourists.
As far as he recalled the details, he had caught the hourly town bus that morning to the main sandy beach, called in fact Paradise, on the quiet, undeveloped side of the island. It was only 40 minutes away, even on the island's dreadful roads, or you could get there still quicker on small ferries, or caiques, from the harbour.
It had been gorgeous at Paradise and sunny but, after a swim and snack at the beach taverna – just about the only building there – he'd decided to walk back along the coast and explore.
He'd also been reading an intriguing 1960s novel, now on his Kindle and again with him at the Grand Hotel. The Magus, by John Fowles, had caught young Stone's imagination and was set, some had said, on this island or, at least, its group.
He'd been hiking through forest paths skirting the coastal road for about half an hour when he reached the cove and, thinking it deserted, decided to strip off and, leaving his still-damp costume to dry, cool down with a swim. It was a shingle beach and there was only a shut-up, small church.
It thrilled him, too, to be naked as he gingerly stepped out across the pebbles. Then, as he'd begun to wade out, he had seen the girl lying in the sun on an outcrop of rocks you had to swim to reach.
At first he'd thought of returning for his trunks, fearing she might not be alone. However, it had felt wonderful once deeper in the water, so refreshingly free. The beach stones had given way to soft sand underfoot and it was so clear he could see his feet.
Looking back toward the beach there was just the little, white church amid the pines. By then he'd become more bold, as well as curious.
Stone had swum over and then, paddling water and still neck-deep, said hello and asked if he might join her. Jodie had smiled, still rather sleepy, then told him, in that perky, rising accent, “Sure, you bet.”
Stone smiled again at the memory, along with his mental efforts as he had dried - lying on his stomach upon the warm rocks in the baking sun – trying not to get an erection.
The girl was clearly used to nude sunbathing and this, she said, was a well known 'secret' spot where no one bothered others. A priest only came to the church on special occasions, she'd been told, and then by boat. There was only a rough path through the trees.
Stone had tried to appear nonchalant. But she had looked so beautiful and his eyes had strayed, unbidden, whenever she glanced away or again closed her eyes during their desultory conversation, discussing places visited and things seen, as travellers did.
Stone had already been to the far-off Cyclades, the islands where she planned to visit next. Before here, Jodie had been on Hydra, which Stone fancied seeing. It was where the beautiful, bohemian set, including at one time singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, were said to hang out. However, they'd both enjoyed Athens or, at least, the Acropolis at sunset and the Plaka, or old city.
In the end, she'd given him a ride on the pillion of her scooter, borrowed from some workmate at a town taverna where she waited on tables and washed up dirty plates.
They slept together the following night, after eating takeaways and touring the bars where she knew so many people and, it seemed, all the local characters.
For Stone, just over his first and only long relationship from Blackpool school years, plus a couple of seedy trysts with holidaymakers at his family's small hotel in South Shore, Jodie had seemed a dream come true – an education on the wider world.
What had followed though, with Marlene, had been his post-graduate course; from a woman, rather than a passing girl. Stone smiled at the memory but then his mind came abruptly back to the present, as he saw his hostess approaching across the pontoon from Laguna. She smiled in return, misinterpreting his thoughts as eagerness for his meal, and with a brief apology handed him an embossed menu.
“Not everything available just now,” she warned, standing close to his table and framed by the lagoon and stars around her. Her sweet scent vied with the sultry ones of nearby herbs on a gentle breeze.
“I rather fancied the steak, fillet?” Stone told her. She nodded and smiled again. How old was she, probably late 30s, even a little older? Certainly she appeared older than her dark, dashing but rather brusque husband.
She was still attractive, in a sophisticated way, while much adorned in that gold jewellery which glittered against her clinging, black dress; an attractive, rather clever woman, Stone felt.
“Medium-rare?” she asked.
“More medium than rare, please.”
She nodded again. “And more drink?” She picked up his empty pint glass, eyebrows raised.
“Could I have a carafe of this red wine?”
“Certainly.” She turned but then hesitated. “Are you holidaying here?”
Stone simply nodded and smiled.
“At a hotel?” She raised her dark-brown eyebrows again. “You don't dress like a yacht person.”
“Thank you. Yes,” Stone conceded at last, “I'm at the Grand for the time being, not sure how long.”
Her eyes widened. “Not the place it was.” She smiled knowingly then she shrugged and, with a further hint of apology at her curiosity, explained, “It is just this virus, they say it will get worse – maybe even make people quarantine.” She paused, then told him, “We fear, too, for our business.”
Stone nodded. “Yes, partly why I came – to be holed up here, rather than in chilly England.” He smiled, still thinking her fears were exaggerated – specially here, then promised, “You'll get my business anyway.” He raised his wine glass in salute and his hostess laughed, her face lighting up at last.
“I prepare your meal,” she said, then strode off down the pontoon, her neat, dark figure swaying against the shore-side fairy lights.
Her sweet perfume slowly drifted away too, leaving that musky night scent off the hills. A piano sonata now rang out from inside Laguna. Her husband, young though he was, clearly a man of taste.
The nearby fish restaurant had now closed and the lantern lights were extinguished on its sea decking. There was silence but for the soft piano music, not Beethoven now but Schubert, Stone thought, and the odd 'plop' of a fish in the black, otherwise still lagoon.
Stone let a long sigh drift upon the air. How odd it was, to find himself a lone visitor here. He finished the wine in his glass and, with a sudden chilled sense of loneliness beneath this vast canopy of stars and dark surrounding hills, he thought fondly again of his earlier visit but, this time, of Marlene – another sophisticated, older woman of, as they said, a certain age.
How old had she been back then? Possibly late 30s, even a little older – and himself half that. The preposterous holiday scenario made Stone smile again, at his own nerve, or good fortune.
The Australian, Jodie, was not one to be distracted from her travel plans – certainly not by a casual affair, as she clearly regarded Stone. He'd been, as he recalled, more dependent at that difficult time; uncertain if he should follow or accompany her.
“When it suits her she'll drop you, like a stone!” an older, wiser, mutual friend among the band of foreign visiting workers and backpackers had warned him. So he had stayed, although moping rather.
When he thought about it now, Stone recalled with some surprise that he had not wanted to go home for his 21st. His mother's tragedy just a few years before; his father's depression and drinking since and, also, his own sense of guilt and insecurity, had all made him unwilling to celebrate, even with his many friends.
Being on the island had excused him from all that and he also had an understanding from his workplace at home, too, after he had qualified.
He'd trained, following school, on the local evening paper in Blackpool - after the family of three had moved from Barrow in the Lakes, hoping to find more prosperity in the bustling resort.
Reporting had quickly suited young Stone, as people seemed to warm to him. He also found himself lucky in his pursuit of stories, usually being in the right place at the right time. Also, he enjoyed the writing, the variety of assignments and haphazard, often casual, office life – once deadlines were met - with much free time spent around a busy Blackpool, back then a thriving holiday town.
“Take time off, think about your future and, if you still want to stay with us, we'll sort out a promotion – maybe to the news or sub-editors' desks,” his avuncular editor had offered, knowing he'd just qualified, was almost 21 and had also been doing some freelancing for the national papers in Manchester.
The editor had also known, of course, about Stone's mother's death in a double traffic fatality – occurring out of their area but still qualifying as a story – with her new husband. Stone had earlier left their hotel home with her, as she finally walked out on his philandering father, but had never settled with her and the new partner. Instead, he'd returned and started work on the newspaper by the time she and her by then second husband were both killed.
Life at home, like the earlier success of their hotel, had never been the same again. His father had become more recklessly indulgent but without enjoying any of it, or so it had seemed to young Stone as he went on his own travels.
It was after he'd been doing a little bar and cleaning work, at one of the island's many town tavernas, that he'd met Marlene and her friends.
There had been three of them, all Americans and, as it turned out, from the same area. Had it been Ohio? One reason for their visit, they'd told him, was to enjoy the sea after coming from such a land-locked state. There was Marlene, an almost white-haired blonde with a pretty and fresh, rather girlish face and curvaceous body. She was confident and outgoing, very friendly just like the man of the group – Greg.
Stone had assumed the pair were a couple, accompanying their older companion whose name he couldn't now recollect. It had been a graceful name, though, one which suited her and her understated style in manner, speech and dress.
This older woman also wore a distinctive white head scarf at all times, rather like those old-movie heroines in open-topped limousines. She also donned dark glasses, adding to that reclusive star quality. None of them were your typical loud American stereotypes and Stone had immediately warmed to them.
The group had become regulars, stopping to drink and have some late-afternoon snacks after sailing trips on a yacht they'd chartered, along with its crew. They clearly had plenty of money and were very generous with their tips.
How odd and rather tragic the trio's Aegean idyll had turned out to be, though not for Stone whom they, to his surprise at the time, had adopted. Of course, he considered now, that would have been for Marlene's benefit; perhaps her own idea, or even suggested by the older woman.
Still, magical things seemed to happen on the island – rather as in that strangely haunting novel by Fowles. It struck Stone as even more extraordinary now that he looked back at it all. Also, it was beginning to give him the kernel of an idea and perhaps more . . .
Stone smiled, looking up, as his host now appeared again, striding steadily across the pontoon which swayed gently under his weight - and the heavily laden tray of food and drink he was at last bringing his sole customer.
THE sunlight was stunning as Stone swept aside the floor-length, heavy curtains of his Poseidon Suite bedroom. Beyond, the Aegean sparkled with promise, reflecting a light-blue canopy of sky with its occasional fluffy but also bright, white clouds.
Stone stared out toward the mist-shrouded mainland far beyond, his eyes glancing over the diverse vessels at sea or anchored nearer by. One or two yachts tacked in the mid-distance and then, startling him with its overnight appearance here, a beautiful three-masted schooner was moored just below the hotel, a stately newcomer beside the deep-dock wharf of the esplanade.
What was more, Stone observed with interest - if he wasn't mistaken from this distance, that strange man in whites and wearing a captain's braided peaked cap was standing just by the vessel, apparently talking to some crew on her long, sleek deck. Was the curious, bearded man roaring threateningly at them too?
Stone smiled at the thought then came back to the bed and checked his wristwatch, surprised to find it already after nine. Despite those erratic mattress springs, he had slept well. Clearly, the air and, of course, plentiful wine of the lagoon restaurant had suited him.
As he stared about the spacious, once elegant bedroom with its period furniture and fancy plasterwork, Stone also realised this was the first time for a long while he had awoken in good spirits.
He wandered to the airy bathroom and showered, then shaved, remaining naked. It was still pleasantly cool from the ceiling fan in his large bedroom as he dressed; also he'd left the windows open behind those thick, full-length curtains.
Stone pulled on some shorts and a short-sleeved shirt he wore loose outside them. Then he found his pair of soft-leather boat shoes from the trunk. That was dressing taken care of – ah, the joys of life's simplicity in warmer climes!
He went into the still larger sitting room to find it already warm from reflected sunlight through its closed windows. He opened them wide on to the balcony, leaning at its edge, breathing the fresh air.
Below, on the wide concourse of the esplanade come dock, the bearded man in whites had gone but crew were visible still busying themselves on the great yacht. They all wore uniform blue-and-white striped shirts above their dark shorts. At the schooner's towering main mast, Stone noticed now, there was the Greek flag but, also, a German one.
A three-wheeled utility truck, with an open, flat back behind its two-seater cab, was offloading supplies to a hoist beside the schooner. With luck if watching from here, Stone thought, he might see it set sail.
The little truck was one of few motor vehicles on the island, other than those occasional scooters heard along the coast road. It was good to see people strolling and instead. Nearby, there were fishermen mending or drying their nets out on the wide wharf; another skipper was painting his boat as it bobbed among those anchored in the small, curved harbour.
There was much to see from Stone's high eyrie.
Last evening he'd returned from Laguna in one of the horse buggies. Perhaps his hosts had alerted its driver earlier; why else would it have waited at the corner in darkness with no one about?
Anyway, Stone was glad of the ride after his quiet but enjoyable meal, alone except for memories of his last visit 20 years before. It had made still more vivid his recollection of Marlene; for they, too, had returned by buggy to where she was staying after their romantic meal, also on the lagoon's pontoon.
Back then, there had been different, older owners and the restaurant far busier in late-season.
Last night, returning, there had been no other person on the dark coast road, just the glimmer above it from sedate villas they passed. The buggy's lantern had swung gently as the horse walked, while its young driver remained quiet before smiling and nodding his capped head, when finally paid and generously tipped, beneath the by then deserted and quiet Grand Hotel.
Stone phoned down for boiled eggs and toast which, he hoped, wouldn't be too much for the hotel's disappointing kitchen staff; then also added honey to his late breakfast menu. He recalled that, like the yoghurt, it had been a delightful local treat on the island; then he had also asked for watermelon – another pleasant memory from his previous visit, as his mouth was still rather dry from last night's red wine.
He then left the suite's door ajar and went out on to the balcony again. Below him, after a while, a small procession had appeared from his hotel. It comprised the man in whites, his equally tall and well-dressed wife, much luggage with two porters, then a small, older man in a dark suit with white shirt and tie, accompanied closely by a middle-aged woman whom, Stone judged after scrutiny from above, to be the older receptionist he'd seen the previous evening.
They were clearly seeing off the 'lion man' and his wife – and at the side of the schooner too. Its crew were loading their luggage from the porters and their shipmates waiting on board to greet the apparently important passenger couple.
Was this also, then, the Grand's manager seeing them off, perhaps with his wife or senior staff member?
But just then Stone's odd assortment for breakfast arrived, along with a silver pot of piping hot coffee. It was laid out politely by the small waiter he'd seen previously, complete with rather faded and thin-worn linen napkins.
Stone led the waiter back inside and found a tip for him from last evening's change. By the time he had returned to his viewing place the little party on the wharf had disbanded. He watched the schooner easing away from the dock, under engine power but also with one forward sail. The bearded man could be seen beside the crew member at the wheelhouse. Then the main sails were unfurled and the schooner picked up speed.
Impressed, Stone turned to his humble breakfast assortment. To his relief, the eggs weren't too hard- boiled and still warm; his toast was crisp and plentiful, the honey as excellent as remembered. Even the coffee was rich. Perhaps it was a different chef organising the kitchen today. He left the melon for later, watching the schooner, now in full sail and heaving far over in a long, graceful tack towards the Peloponnese hills.
The drama of that scene had made him momentarily forget previous thoughts about his writing – some new ideas at last! He recalled them to mind, most of the plot possibilities circling around Marlene and the woman she'd accompanied. It had been a sad story in the end, yes, but one safe to revisit - far in time and place from his recent tragedy. That horror still huddled within Stone, ready to tear his fragile spirit and cut deep with its hurt yet again, if he should only for a moment lower his defences.
Stone got his laptop but had to retreat a little into the balcony's sparse shade to see its screen without the sun's glare. Then, with just the occasional strands of distant conversations, buggy hooves and bells or scooter engines rising from the streets below, he opened a new file.
Stone wrote its working title simply as On Paradiseo, considering adding a subtitle of A Modern Greek Tragedy but then shying away from those words. He wasn't even sure if it would make a short story, a commercial article or more.
However, he set out the scene before him, except now with the schooner approaching rather than departing the island; all under the stony seaward gaze from the esplanade of Bouboulina, the nearby islands' 19th Century naval commander and heroine of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans.
It was said that if you touched Bouboulina's waterfront statue before departing, then you would return to the island. Well, it had proved so for Stone himself; would it now for his fictional characters inspired by those from his youthful memories?
He still had little idea of the story, though tragic it must be. There might, he intended, be room for some glimmer of hope along the way – perhaps after touching that bleak seafront effigy of these islands' fierce heroine.
His own heroine was taking the shape of that older American lady wearing the distinctive silk head scarf and dark glasses, her age duly reduced for literary effect and romantic opportunity.
Would the strange, bearded man in whites also make some appearance? There had to be love, too, and, Stone felt and hoped deep down, some unravelling of shared human experience, bringing understanding. The Greeks, after all, had been so prodigiously wise – far before the tramp over this ancient landscape of Roman military feet.
He thought of the German flag on the schooner; for they, too, had brought their armies here over these much embattled and bloodied islands.
Stone stared out at the peaceful, seemingly timeless panorama spread before him, letting his mind go blank once more. It sometimes helped his writing ideas, for journalism or fiction. However, this time he put away the laptop before he was tempted to look over his messages or even, God forbid, that latest online bad news for mankind – the spreading pandemic.
Still sustained by his late breakfast and at last refreshed by the generous slice of watermelon, Stone picked up his shoulder bag and went out, slowly descending the hotel's wide, winding stairs to its cavernous ground floor and reception.
“Kalimera!” he responded in kind, to the younger receptionist now back at her post again. Today she had on a more fetching lemon and red, summer dress and her dark hair was down, cascading about her lightly tanned shoulders. Her smile was beautiful, again warming his heart.
Stone paused and handed her his key, perhaps as an excuse to talk. “Lovely dress,” he told her with admiration.
“Thank you. Did you sleep well, sir?”
“I did indeed, yes.” He glanced toward the empty restaurant just visible behind her through a glazed, partly lace-curtained partition.
“Are you lunching with us today?”
“No,” he smiled back and shrugged his bag more firmly on to his shoulder, “going for a swim, on the town beach.”
She beamed, then observed, “It is a beautiful day for you.”
So, too, were her dancing, dark eyes now shining upon him, Stone was thinking; enjoying, also, this close human contact with someone alive, fresh and young – seemingly untouched by tragedies, real or fictional.
“There is a bigger sandy beach, too, over the island, called Paradise,” she told him, seeming in no hurry to return to her paperwork.
Stone nodded then, just to prolong their contact, explained, “Yes, I know, I've been here before – many years ago.” 'Before you were born', he'd been about to say but, with a sudden vanity – or was it a sly hope – he'd held back the words.
“Ah! I see – and now you return. That is good!”
“Hmm.” Stone smiled, running out of more to say but still staring into those eyes, feeling his former empty loneliness flood away into their depth and glow.
“Sir,” she began uncertainly, after a suddenly awkward, silent pause; actually glancing now to her side, where a little unseen office was located, its door open. Then more quietly she asked, “Do you still wish to stay for some time here, on the island?”
“Yes.” He smiled, wondering why she sounded so unsure herself. At least now, in this place, he felt himself coming alive again after barren months.
“It is only that, well,” she began to explain, “our owner has just left – and his instruction is that the hotel should soon be closed, for improvements.” Her eyes rounded and she added, “He believes this virus will get much worse; affect our business – all the island hotels.”
“I see,” Stone muttered, beginning to understand; also to wonder, with a little panic, if the new ideas for his future might be stifled before they could start. “Was he the gentleman who left on the large schooner? I could see, from my balcony.”
“Yes.” She nodded. “Mister Mueller, he is our owner.”
Stone sighed; would he himself, too, have to depart soon, he wondered glumly. But he smiled, seeing the girl's sudden concern at his change of mood.
“He seemed a little odd,” Stone dared to say, then explained, “I heard him, well, roar.”
Unexpectedly the girl laughed, heartily once more – it revived Stone's good mood again, so bright and cheerful in this crumbling, old hallway.
“Yes, it is his illness, poor man. Something like Tourette's, I think. You know? You call it the same?”
“Yes.” Stone grinned in return. Then he sighed, now easing off his light shoulder bag and, at last, leaning casually against the reception counter. He smiled at her again, sensing her suitably receptive, and asked earnestly, “So, you think I may have to leave here too?” He stared, waiting, seeing her uncertainty.
“Well, yes, if we do close,” she murmured, glancing again toward the office with its half-open door. Then she smiled more encouragingly and told him, “But you might take some rooms, even a villa – some are halved, with separate living for owners.”
Stone nodded, that had been part of his idea.
Then she shrugged, seeming to think him unenthusiastic at her suggestion, adding, “Maybe some other hotel stay open, there are tourist ones – from big holiday companies. They say, though, that soon international flights could stop.”
She hesitated, realising this was all bad news.
“I remember someone, from my visit before,” Stone told her, “who rented a house, down on the waterfront, where it was quieter.” He smiled, seeing her nod with interest. “Do you think that might be possible?”
“Yes, is possible.” She looked down at her desk, then found some notepaper and began to write. “This is our mayor, Mister Kostis, his office just by bank, before town beach. He can help you, I think.”
Stone took the paper and smiled back at her grin, she seemed delighted by their talk and this more positive conclusion; almost like a shared venture.
He nodded his thanks, then said, “I'll let you know how I get on and, by the way, my name is Sam.”
Stone left the imposing premises with a lighter step and mood, walking out into the sunshine and marvelling a little at the girl's revealed name, Olympia.
Well, he had some banking business to see to, for future funds. With that and, hopefully an interview with the island's mayor, he had enough to do; before, that is, he could enjoy a swim and, finally, late lunch.
Stone strolled into the harbour, then took a sharp turning toward where the bank and some stores made up the local equivalent of a high street.
He finally felt involved in life here; things were at last falling into place. Did it herald new hope, a fresh belonging – something to at last hang on to, to enjoy?
AS the bank's chief teller had advised Stone after their satisfactory business dealings, the mayor's office was easily found. There was a large Greek flag flying from the balcony.
It was a plain, stone building amid the row of stores on a winding lane eventually opening out into the promenade of the town beach, a narrow sandy cove lined with cafés.
The small building, Stone realised, was to all intents and purposes a town hall. Inside it he was greeted by a helpful and businesslike young woman in a reception area, beside the entrance hall.
Opposite her inquiry desk with office behind, were double doors at present propped open, revealing a meeting hall where a cleaner was at work; then plain but wide timber stairs ahead, leading up to a landing before dividing into two flights to the upper floor with that long balcony where the flag was proudly flying.
Stone would need an appointment, the receptionist warned – until he explained his business was renting a house. Upon learning that, she had slipped into the inner office then returned and immediately ushered Stone through and into the mayor's presence.
He was a rotund and balding, middle-aged man behind a large desk. The rather stuffy and cramped office seemed full of solid, wooden furniture overflowing with many files and papers.
Clearly Mayor Kostis was a family man, too, as his desk bore an array of framed colour photographs with smiling faces of different ages and genders.
The few pictures on the wall were much older, black and white photographs of the island when less built up, also showing tall-masted, working sailing ships anchored at its docks and unloading goods.
The mayor bustled to his feet politely and nodded in welcome. He was perhaps too short to shake hands across his wide, cluttered desk but waved Stone toward an upright chair at the side.
A dark suit jacket was stretched across the low back of a well-worn leather swivel chair the mayor firmly filled once more, before speaking quickly in Greek to his receptionist/secretary.
“Coffee, Mister er . . . ?” he then asked and Stone agreed with thanks, while providing his name.
Although short, the mayor seemed almost square in shape and also powerfully built. He had wide shoulders and a bullish neck, where his white shirt was unbuttoned above a pulled-down and rather faded tie.
Kostis looked to Stone more like a plumber, masquerading in ill-fitting office clothes, who'd lumbered into the town hall by accident and stayed, now too hefty to get down to the pipework.
He possessed a strong-featured face, however, with untidy, dark curls of hair around a sweat-glistened pate, matching thick, black moustache and a day's growth of stubble on his jowls. It seemed the plumber was struggling under all this paperwork.
Stone tried to get more comfortable on the unforgiving wooden chair and wished the ceiling fan was switched on, or a window opened.
The mayor was studying him with interest, those dark, intense eyes assessing now and imbuing Kostis with a different, more shrewd character. His English, though, was faltering.
“You are staying here – on holiday is it?”
“A vacation, yes. Maybe for the summer, or longer,” Stone told him slowly then, seeing a frown and anticipating further questions, he added as if in explanation, “I'm doing some writing – taking a long rest in the sun.”
Mayor Kostis nodded but his uncertain eyes belied his slumped, lazy pose. “You wish to rent house?” He licked his lips momentarily and waited.
“Yes, I'm staying at the Grand but believe it might close soon for renovations.”
The mayor looked more interested again, whether because of the Grand's name or this bit of local information about changes, Stone couldn't tell. He'd decided not to mention the virus or its significance.
They fell silent as their coffees were brought in on a tray – looking very strong against the white cups and saucers, with creamy condensed milk available from a small jug. Stone decided to take his black but it smelled so strong he also spooned in brown sugar. The mayor poured milk into his own.
“I have house on coast road, before lagoon,” Kostis told him. “Is available just now, very clean and quiet.” He frowned then, finding the words, added with a little smile of pride, “Well appointed.”
Stone stifled a smirk at the rather quaint description; genuinely pleased to hear of its location after his previous, enjoyable evening near there.
“That sounds fine,” he said, although guardedly, beginning for the first time to start calculating what he hoped to pay; wondering, too, if Kostis would have that huffy Greek pride and be offended by haggling.
“The usual tariff is 500 euro,” Kostis told him.
That would be a week, Stone presumed. A lot more than renting a house at home, even back in leafy Lytham. But, then, this was a sunny, holiday island and it was a seafront position. Besides, his suite was even more expensive. He'd indulged himself there, but now felt more cautious - thinking of perhaps months ahead.
“A month?” he asked, straight-faced and out of sheer devilment. The coffee was acrid, it had altered his mood and, he sensed, this mayor was ripping him off.
“Agh!” Kostis flopped back as though given an electric shock, his mouth open and all guile gone. But then he laughed like a jolly grandfather. Finally, he pulled himself forward and more upright.
“No, a week, my friend.” He gripped his big, working hands together; a wide, gold ring now visible, squeezed on to a still thicker finger. How did the man pick up a pen to write?
Stone raised his eyebrows, then frowned. He put down the half-drunk coffee and eased back again in the stiff chair.
“I'm talking for the whole season, Mayor, and,” Stone paused deliberately, choosing his words, “from what I hear there might not be a season, if the tourists cannot come. I think 1,000 a month about right – for such a long let.”
Kostis was shaking his shadowy jowls, looking rather pugnacious now. Stone wondered if he'd overstepped the mark and caused offence.
“Fifteen hundred!” the mayor said bluntly, “That's as low as I go.”
Stone let a silence grow, seeming to stare straight back but, in fact, studying the sweat on Kostis's brow and balding head.
“Twelve hundred, then,” he said confidently, “I'll pay in advance – but that includes any bills, electricity, water and so on, plus a weekly cleaner.”
Kostis stared at him, then his dark eyebrows knitted and his face set. “Perhaps if I show you the house, eh, Mister Stone?”
“Yes.” Stone smiled and politely added, “please!”
After a short phone call, Kostis pulled on his jacket and shuffled around his desk. He gave some quick instructions or explanation to his secretary then they left, Stone towering over the wider, bullish man.
To Stone's surprise, their transport was to be a small scooter. He squeezed on to what little remained of the seat behind the mayor and, not wanting to try and cling on to the fat man in front, just got his hands fixed on rear supports before the 50cc engine struggled away.
They went a different route, around the town.
Stone tried to relax and lean in with the many bends in this narrow back lane, which seemed to run behind the waterfront buildings and below the hilltop villas with their high walls and gates.
Occasionally the mayor, seemingly enlivened now he had escaped from his office, bibbed his horn or just shouted cheerfully to passing pedestrians. Clearly, he knew them all.
Finally they slowed and descended a short passage to emerge on the coast road Stone had traversed last night, just before that corner which led round into the lagoon.
Stone eased off the back of the small scooter with relief, then massaged his legs as the mayor propped up his machine.
They entered through a green-painted door in the side of a high, stone wall. Once beyond that surrounding wall there was silence in the pleasant spacious garden, except when birdsong resumed.
The first item catching Stone's eye was a hammock, slung between two mature trees - one with striking blue flowers.
Around it was a squarish, neglected lawn surrounded by colourful flowering bushes. There were also some wrought-iron tables with matching chairs, then other seats - wooden recliners awaiting cushions, their frames leaning amongst flower pots and old paving stones. Also, in a leafy corner, was a time-weathered statue of a Greek goddess or classic beauty.
The house itself was simply but solidly built, its exterior walls plainly rendered and with green shutters. Also, unusually for here, it had a flat roof with crenellated, stone perimeter wall rather like a fortress.
There were French windows, securely closed, and the sturdy, white-painted main walls and their woodwork all looked well maintained. There would be ample room it seemed for a big family.
Kostis had unlocked a stately, solid wooden door to one side and Stone went over to follow him inside. There was also a wrought-iron security gate behind it, to facilitate a flow of air to the interior. Stone had noted similar grates cemented into small squares in the garden wall, to keep the garden air fresher too.
It was also surprisingly airy inside and obviously well cared for – just presently unoccupied. The main sitting room was off a short entrance hall, with heavy traditional furniture softened by colourful cushions on sofas and chairs along with some rugs over the stone-paved floor. There was also a large open fireplace surrounded artfully by stone, its hearth now filled with logs and dried flowers.
The air seemed somehow scented, perhaps from many winters of woodsmoke, but still surprisingly fresh. The place was spacious but also felt cosy, with some gilt-framed oil paintings of island scenes and elaborate mirrors on its otherwise thick-plastered walls.
An open stairway led to the upper floor and there was a short, wood-panelled corridor to the kitchen, making the ground-floor area almost open-plan. To one side of the downstairs there was also a lavatory with sink and WC and a utility room, where some brushes, pans and buckets had been left by its half-open door.
“My niece, who is cleaner here, she has come today,” Kostis, following Stone's stare, informed him, adding, “once every week she come.”
They walked through to the kitchen, which looked old-fashioned but adequately equipped. Kostis pointed out a stop-tap under the large, pot sink; a fuse-board on the wall, also switches for ceiling fans; then a bunker where rubber boots, some tools, wiring, candles and logs were stored.
Stone followed him up the creaking wooden stairway which rose then dog-legged round off a small window-lit landing to an upper floor with three bedrooms. Two of these were furnished with beds, free-standing wardrobes and chests of drawers; one, smaller, just with a desk and easy chair. This study faced out to sea, like the master bedroom next door with a balcony.
Kostis also showed him a large bathroom with shower and checked the running water, the flush of its WC and a cylinder with heater for hot water. Then he pointed out a short, narrow stair up to that flat roof.
“To dry washing, or sunbathe,” he suggested, smiling while, Stone sensed, sizing up Stone's pleased reaction to his house and garden. It really was splendid, with more character and comfort than he'd anticipated.
They trudged downstairs and then out into the garden again. Stone was loathe to leave. There were still some intriguing outbuildings to explore. Also, he would have loved to lie down in that hammock then, later perhaps, wander up to the balcony of 'his' bedroom (he'd already decided) to lunch while looking out to sea.
But, of course, there would still be food and household provisions to buy and bring, luggage to move too, perhaps leases to sign – once all agreed.
“You like?” Kostis waited, clever eyes shining. It was really more of a statement than a question.
Stone nodded agreeably and smiled. Whatever the cost, he'd decided, this would be home for a while.
To his relief, the mayor gamely slapped him on his shoulder and led the way to the side gateway.
“My niece, she do shopping too, if you like – maybe even cook.” He laughed, then turned round after opening the green door, his bulk now blocking Stone's way. Then he asked, frowning, “You alone here, yes?”
Stone nodded again.
They returned to the scooter and Kostis kicked it into life with a brutal stamp on its starter lever, then began revving the handle throttle.
Stone paused, preferring the option of walking now. He wanted to consider his immediate plans and had not enjoyed the earlier cramped ride.
“I could move in today, if that's not too soon.”
Kostis looked pleased, sitting squarely on his scooter and waving a big hand towards the few inches of saddle he wasn't taking up.
“No thanks, I'll walk,” Stone told him. He licked his lips then added, “I could bring a cheque, or the money, this afternoon – pick up a receipt, contract . . .”
Somehow, he doubted they did rental contracts here but would feel safer with one, specially paying monthly in advance. He was also assuming the rental negotiations were over, or hoping so.
To his surprise, Kostis now just shrugged his hefty shoulders. “No hurry,” he said, “just see my secretary, for keys.”
Stone watched the mayor, almost overflowing his transport, labour slowly up the steep path then begin to pick up speed, bibbing its horn again, waving and shouting something – whether to himself or some unseen householder, Stone had no idea.
Along the coast road he savoured the sea air while walking slowly back to town. Yes, this was what he had needed.
Stone felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his chest and shoulders. He might be facing his 40th birthday but felt young and free again at heart.
He grinned as the sun warmed him through his airy, casual clothes; feeling only the gentle weight in his shoulder bag of his few necessary belongings: costume, towel, Kindle reading and cheque book.
Stone was looking forward to his swim.
THE water felt refreshingly cool now, as Stone turned back with a tumbling somersault beneath the gently breaking waves. The spring sea had been cold at first, not yet warmed through a relentless summer sun.
He swam back more slowly, seeing his pile of belongings still there on the beach, under his awaiting towel – courtesy of the Grand Hotel. That was another thing he remembered, the people's honesty here, along with this wonderful clear sea even by the town.
No one locked their doors, they didn't even have house numbers. Only visitors liked to have keys, for their guest-house or hotel rooms – and, as he'd discovered, usually the same keys opened all doors.
On that last visit he'd also hidden his travel money under spare bedding in the wardrobe of his rented room; only for the cleaning girl to tell him she'd found it for him. It never occurred to her that he'd suspiciously concealed it there. Locals didn't expect thefts, though sometimes there were reports of misbehaviour through drink or emotional disputes.
They dealt with it themselves, finding culprits quickly – there was only one way off the island, by ferry at the harbour or, perhaps, private boat if desperate enough. Also, there had only been two policemen. One was enough, Stone had been told, but the other was there to give the bored man company.
He smiled at the recollection, now tramping up the quiet beach then spreading out his towel in the sun and flopping down happily. After squinting at the clear blue sky above him, Stone closed his eyes.
He was thinking of Jodie, the Australian 'mermaid', of them making love on that distant beach he hoped to soon visit again, once he'd moved into his house by the lagoon.
Back then, he recalled, they had been in a grassy clearing among the pine trees, just off the shingle beach – and undisturbed in their naked joy all afternoon. Young Stone had thought himself in paradise, any thoughts of his Fylde-coast home and work prospects in Manchester far from his mind.
That vivid recollection of Jodie's enthusiastic lovemaking was unsettling. Stone rolled on to his stomach, for decency's sake. There were only a handful of others lazing on the beach but many locals strolled by, or even stared from the village bus, curious to see new faces, or bodies. The Greeks, though, for all the tourist hype about hedonistic liberty here, believed in keeping up proper appearances.
Even the poorest among them had their quiet dignity and sometimes ferocious pride. Within reasonable holidaying allowances, they liked you to behave or, as one old expat had put it, maintain your self respect.
The free love in the sun, though, had been deceptive; along with those boozy chats and easy friendships with other travellers in the tavernas. Stone, even back then as a young man approaching 21, had realised that, within himself, he was still full of uncertainties and inhibitions beneath the occasional wildness. Marlene, the American, had taught him that.
His mental ardour damped down again, Stone rolled over into the sun, sighed, and thought a little about his story – One Way To Paradise, he'd now decided for a better title. Its central character, he was deciding, should be called Corrina – a slightly older American woman, with a tragic secret.
But much of Marlene would be within her. They had made love, too, after the departure of Jodie. Yet, despite the pleasure and surprises of that, it was perhaps his own leaving of the island, kindly seen off just by Marlene, which was still most poignant to him – for what she'd told him of himself, so incisively.
A dog was barking. Stone opened his eyes to the harsh sunlight again, then sat up, curious. The hound was barking at a thick-set, totally bald, young man walking along the edge of the surf and carrying pieces of what appeared to be driftwood. He was smartly dressed in shorts and shirt but rather childish style, for the sturdy chap must have been in his 20s. The mongrel dog clearly found him odd, too, but he ignored it.
Stone groaned, another curiosity – like the bizarre, older chap he'd seen by the bus on the small promenade here, dressed like a cowboy complete with imitation Colt 45s strapped about his waist; the moustachioed man in black, even to his western hat.
He shook his head, then got up to change. His trunks felt dried enough and he changed using the towel around himself, again for decency's sake. It was time to pick up his house key, leave his first month's cheque in return for a receipt, if not contract, then check out of his hotel. Perhaps, if Olympia was at the Grand's reception desk, he might ask about some of these local characters too. It was all grist for the mill of his half-baked story.
Sadly, it was the older receptionist on duty at the Grand when Stone returned. However, the efficient secretary at the town hall had proved both helpful and well-informed. It had also turned out that she was another niece of Mayor Kostis, the big, if short, family man. Stone showered, then collapsed on his wide bed in the airy hotel suite. He was not moving out until the following morning, so had hours in late afternoon to now relax and think – or just sleep.
Instead of relaxing, though, Stone felt a terrible unbidden need eating into him; for sex, for human contact, for love. His limbs ached for it after the sensually awakening swim and lazing on the beach; his memories of Jodie, naked, then the remarkable Marlene in the quiet bedroom of that rented house of those three Americans, so long ago, but not far from here; then, of course, of Esperanza.
Oh God, how that hurt, the memory of her! The loss tore again at his insides; that bewildering tragedy of her and her daughter's terrible fate; while he stared up at the peeling plasterwork of the Poseidon Suite's ceiling, a dusty chandelier and slow-turning fan; alone.
Stone cried for the first time in many cold, lonely weeks; first silently, then in deep, shuddering gasps which finally left him exhausted, purged for now. Until some memory of those he'd loved so desperately, whom he'd planned his new and remaining life around, caught him unprepared and vulnerable again.
He lay on the large bed, still lonely but quiet now, dozing fitfully through silent late afternoon until the light faded then sounds of life rose again from below in the town. He'd had nothing to eat since breakfast but was reluctant to brave evening streets, to face others even if friendly but, naturally, curious too.
However, the thought of being unable to sleep through the night - and his demons returning - at last drove him to leave the bed's sanctuary; to shower again, then dress and, with quiet, readjusted dignity, step out once more and, passing an unoccupied reception desk, stroll away from his silent hotel.
Thankfully, the town still felt subdued in its dim lights and gradual easing into the early tourist season. Waiters at bars and tavernas merely nodded, having just risen and bathed themselves from the afternoon siesta. Stone wandered like a returning lost ghost, noting familiar places or new changes; yet pleased again by this warm, inviting atmosphere.
Hungry at last, he scaled the steps of a restaurant he'd remembered in a quiet town square. It was on a flat roof from which there was a fine view of an ancient church, floodlit at night.
It was more expensive and select than those busier, touristy places closer to the harbour. Just one couple, middle-aged and tanned – perhaps yachties from the Old Harbour area – occupied a corner table.
The elderly waiter showed Stone to an opposite corner, overlooking the square and church but also isolated slightly by flowering bushes in pots and the rooftop wall. The waiter lit a table lantern and, with studied deference, opened their embossed menu.
Stone ordered beer; wine would follow, then the food, something Greek and local this time. Here, he sensed, would be fine. He could collect his thoughts, straighten out his mind and emotions once again, even people-watch a little before, eventually, walking back to the Grand, no doubt passing livelier bars by then.
There was much to look forward to, after all.
It was a fine meal; freshly baked kleftiko, its meat falling off the bone; potatoes roasted with onions and tomatoes, many herbs too. The red wine, also, proved good and, finally, a brandy coffee.
But Stone did not walk straight back to his hotel. Instead he wandered across the quiet square, savouring the close warmth even in late evening and the musky air, heading to the floodlit church.
There were gravestones outside, all illuminated by candles in small lanterns and, in the dark, stone entrance, an aroma of incense still lingered. Deeper inside were the gold and gilt haloed saints, heavy tapestries, wood polish and silence. Stone sat down then prayed silently, for peace to those dear departed, but also for himself; then lit two candles in memory.
- The sweet but frustrating teens, full of discovery but also angst!
- The testing 20s, when 'thrusting' forward and upward but worried at being left behind.
- The teetering 30s, at your peak in many ways but perhaps with young family to support and big career choices – driven by fear of 'missing out' on shared goals.
- 40s, or even 50s, still fit and hopefully 'arrived' in life, but often also feeling trapped and working for younger 'upstarts'!
- Even the 60s can be a worrying learning curve and time for profound adjustments.
RAIN swept over the misted windows of Patrick's crowded store, smearing shadowy images of early-evening traffic and the occasional cowering passer-by.
THE first few chapters of novel Voyage of Discovery may give readers a taste for this offbeat adventure and romance that has just been published this month. It was partly inspired by John Masefield's classic Sea Fever (item 40 on our Poetry page). There are illustrations from the book and also its front and back covers (see also Books page).
Archie fought a temptation to check the time, not wanting to look shocked, predictable, middle-class and increasingly suburban – as he had become, even in the country setting of Boot.
HERE is the first chapter of the second Sam Stone Investigates novel, entitled A Stone's Throw. The front and back covers ((see below, left and right) were designed by the author. It was published in paperback in late March and is available on Kindle.
AT Christmas former colleagues and I used to meet Lancashire country writer Jack Benson, who lived at Little Eccleston in Rural Fylde but was born on Blackpool's Marton Moss, so entitled to call himself a Mossag. Sadly Jack is now only with us in spirit at our annual get-together in The Thatched House pub at Poulton-le-Fylde. This chapter from Bright Lights & Pig Rustling (see Books), is a tribute you might enjoy sharing.
MOST newspapers try to alleviate the 'bad news', that helps sell them, with a few more uplifting titbits. My own supposedly humorous columns, latterly entitled 'A Seasoned Look At Life', have attempted to offer such a contrast. Another, which I greatly enjoyed reading in the Gazette, were rural notes.
|Map courtesy of fredmoor.com of St. Annes|
HERE are a couple of extracted chapters from a memoir, Bright Lights & Pig Rustling, about living on the Fylde, Lancashire's Irish Sea coast 'famous for fresh air and fun'. These feature bachelor years in the late 80s and 90s living in Blackpool, Europe's most raucous resort. The book, which spans up to the present day and includes side trips into Vietnam, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka, is published this month - watch our Home and Book pages for news.
THESE are the first few chapters of our latest light thriller and mystery-romance, entitled A Cut Above. It is set on the Fylde coast and revolves around the suspicious death of a famous comedian. The novel also introduces freelance reporter Sam Stone, whom we hope will be appearing in future stories. Front and back covers were designed by the author.
“I AM not having a boyfriend who is an ice-cream man!” Barbara told me adamantly.
THE club's small car park was full when Rebecca arrived. It was mostly parents collecting children from coach Liam's junior class. A space would be free soon but she would have to wait and was already late. Her friend Natasha's gold-coloured Mazda sports was already there.
What made it worse was these parents drove such huge vehicles: mothers with great, unnecessary four-wheel drives; fathers in powerful German limousines.
Rebecca got out of her small hatchback and picked the racquet she wanted from the boot, then the new balls they would need. Liam, though coach here, could not be relied upon for the quality of his tennis balls.
She had one eye on a parking space as she checked her wrist sweatband and water bottle were all in her racquet bag.
Quickly, as a family drove away all talking at once in a seven-seater 'people mover', she got back into the driver's seat and properly parked.
Finally, Rebecca checked herself in the mirror, touching up her lipstick and straightening her dark fringe where it continually rebelled and curled. Her wavy hair was for once behaving itself and her complexion without blemish yet from any summer sun.
Only Rebecca's stomach was awry, upset by her rush and fluttering with anticipation. She was delighted the evening had turned out so sunny and enthralled by Natasha's description of the club's latest eligible man.
The clubhouse was a small, wooden pavilion. Rebecca walked through, greeting a couple of players by the noticeboard and making a mental note to study forthcoming team matches after playing.
She emerged on to the small terrace where people sat in the shade to watch games. It was a pretty setting, with Virginia creeper, clematis and climbing roses in flower at different times of the season.
Liam and Natasha were already on court and hitting 'short tennis' from the service box lines, as coaches encouraged to warm up muscles and 'groove' shots. But, irritatingly, there was no sign of their fourth player.
Rebecca felt her elation die a little as it would on those summer days when, just as work finished, there were mocking tear drops of rain at her window.
Probably Liam had been too casual again about the arrangements.
She headed for their court, noting how a new and rather tight, black top showed off Natasha's flowing blonde hair. Her friend was looking good after workouts at a nearby hotel's health spa. Pale lemon shorts rounded off an outfit rather too young for someone turned 30.
Rebecca felt relatively stocky whenever with Natasha, though their heights almost matched and she was quicker and fitter than Natasha.
Rebecca put down her bag and got out the balls in preparation, then stood and, straightening her tennis dress, stared at the vision of manhood fast approaching her with a wide, perfect grin of recognition as though in a dream.
"Hi, Gareth!" Liam called lazily, as their fourth palyer stepped on to court.
This Gareth raised a hand in greeting. "Liam, Natasha," he acknowledged in a smooth, accent-free voice.
Rebecca felt her stomach lurch as the newcomer offered a large, surprisingly gentle hand for her to shake.
"This is Becky," Liam called.
"Rebecca," she corrected, reluctantly releasing his hand. "I think these balls are harder," she added and, to her embarrassment, began to blush.
"Right, you guys," Liam said, checking Rebecca's tennis balls and putting his own back in a hopper by the court, "a few drives and serves then we'll start, okay?"
He spun his racquet and checked which side strings were knotted. "Rough or smooth, Natasha?"
"Oh, rough!" she said with a look at Gareth that was an open invitation.
"So," said Liam, "let the match begin."
HERE'S a birthday extract from an early chapter in Only The Good News, a humorous memoir still being written and due to be published later this year. (For memoir already published, both semi-fictional and real, see Life of Bliss and The Last Resort, respectively, on our Books page.)
HERE are the first few chapters of our latest published novel Coming Up Roses, a mystery/romance set in leafy Lytham, on the Fylde coast. There's down-to-earth humour but also an uplifting theme of faith and honesty. For more details go to our Books page.
1. EMPLOYING SERVANTS
HERE's the first chapter of 'Harry's Hand', an atmospheric thriller about destiny by Ed Black (see Books page). It features a young Greek immigrant in New York. Yannis (or John) has an inherited gift for palmistry which to him seems a curse rather than a blessing. However, it helps him save the most important in the land, if not those he loves . . .
To read more of Harry's Hand or to buy a copy turn to the Books page.
* * *
IN Las Vegas this month they will be rolling out the red carpet again . . . but, as Roy writes in this short story, fame and fortune aren't everything.
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HERE is an extract from novel A Punt Into Eden, set mainly in Sri Lanka. This is chapter six, when Edward Brown and wife Elizabeth arrive on a working holiday there at Golimbo. His mission, as partner in a development company, is to save their troubled resort site of Serendib Surf further up the coast - so vital to finances it over-rode even news of his terminal heart condition. Yet it will be here Edward finds a new passion for life.
* * *
"So sorry, sir," she muttered, drawing a shawl about her neck. Her clothes were dark but also mired, he saw in the hall light. "Have you food please, water?"
(See also Ed's personal recollections on our Memoir page.)
Young Wayne gave me a wave now as he opened for the evening. He was born in Britain but spoke their native dialect at home. He also held true to the capitalist culture still prevalent in Hong Kong, despite the Communist takeover. Consequently, Wayne could not resist a glance from me to his pride and joy outside the shop - a shiny, almost new Mercedes. We would hear him drive off to the casino most nights after closing, sometimes with his father, then return in the early hours. I suppose they kept the burglars at bay.
It was like the phone calls, now only received from first-name strangers insisting they weren’t selling me anything. The only interesting ones came from call centres in India, whereupon I’d always chat about the weather. At first I thought Becky must be wiping off my messages, just as I suspected her of slipping something into my tea to slow me down, but then old mates began admitting they didn’t get up to much these days either.
While Becky read the Mail on Sunday with breakfast in bed, I have been transported back years to the real Orient and beyond. Looking back, there were what seemed hilarious misadventures and mistakes, lucky brushes with danger and famous names and then, of course, romantic entanglements (though nothing too explicit, She Who Knows requested, in case articles were read by her mother). Ignoring the ironing board, tennis shoes and riding jackets, the study-come-Tardis could also whirl me back to an era before my birth, when grandfather cut a dash across Lancashire in his Buick convertible and my father, a young railway station porter, was pursuing a cotton mill owner’s daughter. But there was no time travel on a Friday evening, I had too much on before dinner at eight.
Parking was always at a premium on a Friday evening and, as I pulled out of Cocker Court, another car promptly took my place - probably a customer for The Seagull, or the Bull’s Head up the road with its large sports screen. Others parked near us to use the late supermarket round the corner, the chip shop, off-licence or bookies. Yes, we were close to all amenities. Most of the cars would have gone by the time I returned, their patrons relaxing over dinner or changing for somewhere special.
Instead I checked over my appearance while walking. I looked in good enough shape, though the baggy tracksuit helped. My height, just under six feet, balanced the stocky frame well enough. My face was pleasantly full without being jowly anymore (thanks to She Who and Pampers). I was clean shaven, with a firm chin and, according to Becky, “noble”, straight nose. My eyes were blue with, I felt, a touch still of sparkle, and my blond hair looked thick enough if kept fairly short, grey flecks barely showing except in the short sideburns. But my eyes had a will of their own, drawn by the sighs of the blonde beside me. To my amazement she was smiling at me, or so it appeared in that mirror. I looked away then glanced back. She was still smiling.
In this chapter hero Bill Winters, a retired writer, is at Lytham Cricket Club watching a match with old friends. During a stroll round the outfield, his pal Harry - a troubled rough diamond - suddenly asks him: "Have you ever killed anyone?"
Introductory chapters from:
50 Shades of Bass
(Our Victorian chapters are illustrated with two rough period maps of Blackpool and Great Marton, drawn by hero Jack Waddington. The novel of about 280 pages is due to be published this summer.)