Volume 2

Chapter 3

Once a week Charles worked on the small farm of family friends for lunch and two pints. They lived deep in the valley, down damp, twisted lanes where moss grips to lichen stone and wisened bracken sits beside young bluebells in the spring; before the moor, where sheep and shaggy ponies roam in a fog that drifts from tors like from a smokestack. ‘A bizarre place’ Charles always thought. Bizarre indeed when the mist set and the sun flashed above and the world became blindingly white.

The first time had been a hearty day, wet and cold; England so rarely both. The two of them would work from nine until the light went and the murmurations floated by.
  They had built a bonfire and fed it with all the branches, trees and brush that had been cut up and cleared; the bonfire like a lambent scab, flames bleeding and crusting, layer upon layer into an ashen scar. They then had wrestled with the bramble, forking and pulling, back-breaking, to get every root. In the overgrowth Charles, intertwined, slipped and grasped and grunted, gore-like mud squelching under-boot, tugging and tugging at a root, so deep between the dry-stone that its heart split rather than give out and he spent a quarter hour scrapping and digging to get the other half out.

The week after they had set out to take down the old fence along the wall. It had been a handsome first of December, under a clear winter’s sun. Lifting, carrying, throwing, wrestling with wood and wire, pulling out barbs rusted black which bit at and belted tree trunks, saying little and mostly through the dogs, they worked themselves dumb, stopping only sometimes when black clouds would spew forth slashing, blinding rain, which they would see coming across the valley from the coast; sheltering under a wind-bent trunk or tucked against a wall, waiting for the clouds to give way to blessed sun.

When Charles tired, his shoulders aching like that of oxen, and he felt sweat cool behind his ears and on his neck, he would mutter to himself ‘Are you cold? Not really. Are you wet? A bit. Are you hungry? Yes! Will you starve? No. Then keep moving’ and with a bittersweet smile he would renew himself and once more set at the wire, tearing away the fence from the gorse and thorn, putting back the crumbled wall.

After hours without respite, drained and mute, they would amble back to the farmhouse, to a wife’s hot food and laughing chatter.
  There, scorched and smoked or wet and worked, nothing was more tasteful than that first pint of Cornish water; ale has to be earnt. Never too had a hot chunk of bread tasted better than at that table, tired and red-cheeked in the warmth of the wood-fire, looking out at the land and seeing all that had needed clearing and burning was cleared and burnt.

Jolly and full from late lunch, by the time Charles got home the stars would be out. Brilliantly fresh as he had not seen them that year; he would look up for a while, then tumble through the motions of an evening after a good day; bath, dressing gown, hot soup, cool scotch, fire, early bed.

Chapter 4

He learnt to appreciate the great pleasure of talking to himself or, at least, to go through exactly what he wanted for as long as he wanted, as if rehearsing lines. His thoughts had become so clear, honest; his wants so simple, easily satisfied.

Most days Charles spoke only twice or thrice; to Robert, Mark the gardener, Elizabeth the shopkeeper or the postman and the odd word that slipped out alone. If he went to the shop, he long prepared to wish Elizabeth a nice day as he took his change and the dozen eggs, touched by the answered smile which had unexpectedly come to mean so much to him.

Robert, an all-round man always in the village for odd jobs, was doing a bit of work around the house, so usually Charles got at least a word out with him; a stout, plain-spoken Cornishman with horny palms, a face worn soft from outdoor work and a white mane flowing from under a faded cap, who kept for company a fat little old Russell bitch called Twig.
  If a mane sounds faintly like an aged rock star, Robert was an aged punk rock fan; he had heard live any band one cared to remember, at the most obscure venues in their early days.
  Those, Hugo Ham-Bendall, who thought themselves familiar and were too familiar for ‘retired-down’ emmets, a London banker at that, called him by his nickname ‘punky’. It smacked of false pastoral chumminess–Marie-Antoinette playing shepherdess. Charles called him Robert and they left it at that. He did a good job, was welcome to leave his tools in the shed and to beer from the store on a hot day.

Storms came and went. When they passed, even though the hours were at their darkest and the night chill could be felt through the walls, the little left of the days were sunny and mild.
  On those days the Cornish coast was like a diadem of sapphires set with emeralds; the sandy coves a string of gleaming pearls. Draw to it like greed to gold, Charles would leave his desk and the village and seek the breeze to blow some life back into him. The fizz of the sea breeze was a tonic for tired eyes.
  Round the head, the wind would sometimes push him at an arm’s length and, when he took off his boots, the sand would streak at his bare feet like a hundred pinpricks. Though his naked foot against the ground was not petrified, cold, but light, easy and his breath drawn clean, settled in the curious peace of natural wonder.
  The sea birds would wheel on parade, gently uplifted like flecked foam off sea spray, their backs a silver sequin gleam caught in hinting rays. Above, a clouded crowd would hurry as passersby do when they prefer to look on.
  Driving back, he might pass two or three people from the village. They would smile and wave and he would smile and wave back. To be alone then did not feel lonely.

If the coast was messy or if he felt like staying near, he would amble up the lane and place his hand on the Celtic cross, in communion with an England of centuries and saints.
  From there, some days he caught the sun set across this perfect county; some days were grizzly, the hedgerows sullen-eyed and the blackthorn naked, shivering in winter’s gloom.
  Regardless, the county always felt small as if within grasp. Charles would look over the hills, beyond the valley’s fragile life and he knew what lay further. He could see it in his mind; that sea, vast but ending too.

Wandering home, he sometimes crossed a local girl, a blonde on her seventeen hand bay gelding. They would share a ‘good evening’ in the flash of meeting eyes as she slowed gracefully from a trot to a walk.

Chapter 5

Charles had felt odd, tense, inviting Peter down. He had lost the heart for friends, forgetting the simple pleasure of their company. Entertaining was an effort he did not really feel he cared for but like all efforts he shied from, he knew it was probably healthy for him; that living alone for too long he would lose his taste for others and life, bored and tired too easily.

They spent the weekend catching up on old things. Charles heard about socially-distanced Bristol with no fewer dinner parties, and Peter about Ophelia and Africa.
  Peter enjoyed Cornwall at its most beautiful and much like the pleasure one has in sharing oneself with a friend, so sharing the place Charles loved and his home brought that same pleasure, especially as he knew Peter appreciated such things too.

At twelve on Monday the pub opened and shortly after they ambled across the village green. The tap emblazoned Doom Bar creaked at first use, thirsty for its first pint. ‘For the address, just across the road’ Charles pointed through the window.
  The landlady was sitting in a corner sorting bookings. The three of them chatted about the pub; though they were quite booked, if the boys walked in, she could sort something out.

The marshes, still flooded, glittered with ducks and geese and sat above on the green, thirst quietly quenched, the young men each spoke what they knew the other needed to hear.

‘…there is a difference in needing to be sociable and needing to be intimate. To confuse them can make for the most uncomfortable guests and the most pitiful lovers.’ Peter chuckled ‘In Ancient Greece there was no graver sin in Zeus’ eyes than the betrayal of Xenia and you, my dear mortal, have a clear path to Elysium. Cornwall was magnificent and I now understand your love of this land. To retire from chaos, how splendid, how beautiful and it was a privilege to share it with you. One has to be strong to leave everything as you have done but you cannot hide yourself away forever like an old man already retired, you’ll become an Oblomov.’

Charles snorted but said nothing; how whimsical Peter could be, yes Oblomov, that was right. Of course Peter was right but he knew that, such thoughts had quietly dogged him for months; I can do no more! I keep trying and nothing moves, nothing works. What more can I do? What else is there? I might as well be down here; it had been maddening to feel his youth atrophy. He wanted nothing more than to start his life.

Having seen Peter off later that afternoon, Charles fell into a familiar, empty-headed spleen. Ho hum, its nervous languor urged him to the coast; streaming through gorged lanes, he raced with the clouds, guessing from them that he would find a clear patch at Port Quin.

There, the sky swelled and the wind was breath-taking. The sea was soft lace-work across the cove, heaving as if covering chaste breast, but at its mouth turned to frothing rage. There the water rushed off the black rock like veins of white granite and the splash from struck forcefully, wind-whipped upwards, spray carried in-land as if nature were bewitched, up and down perverted and that what should fall had risen; the waves bursting along the coast the angry siege of a hundred cursed wraiths, climbing, cloaked in white.

  Ecstatic, he ran along the cliffs, those rocky crenelations, as if from barbican to barbican, to face the sweep of this never-ending foe far, far out to sea. Deafened by the bluster, held only by his steady feet, his cheeks stinging, he felt the coast bristle as the last lilac light came in with the swell.

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