A Strange Small Town – Week 48 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It was a funny little place; lacking the charm of the nearby yachting village or the charismas of the larger and well-know yachting town upstream. As teenagers involved in the sailing scene, we were dismissive of the place. It was ‘touristy’; shops decked out with brightly coloured buckets and spades, inflatable rings and airbeds, rock with a generic county name through the inside and boxes of fudge and toffee bearing pictures of grazing ponies.

It was a place for passing through and rarely stopping. A place inhabited by holidaying grockles and nouveau riche who had bought their holiday homes without realising that the town was quite a way from the sea. Our village, the village where we stayed in the summer, sailed out to the castle and camped in the boat park. Apart from the yacht clubs and the pub, there was nowhere else to spend your money and any other entertainment or supplies good be acquired in the big town – without having to pay over-inflated tourist prices.

I remember one summer in particular. I still have the photographs of us all lounging outside OUR yacht club – there was great rivalry between the two clubs. Hair stiff and bleached from hours sailing, half-worn wet suits (it was easier to leave the bottom half on and wriggle out of the top).  Clutching half pints of rough cider and feasting on freshly made crab sandwiches. Nothing else really mattered that summer.

One of our group had very rich parents who owned a holiday cottage across the road from the pub. We took it in turns to sleep there or in hastily erected two man tents in the boat park once the clubs were closed. We knew that we weren’t supposed to be there but provided the tent was packed away before the morning sailing started, the older members of the club turned a blind eye.

Not that it was peaceful sleeping in the boat park; people ignored the sign ‘Frap your halyards’, and a s a consequence the night was punctuated with the sound of unfrapped halyards tinkling against masts. Hedgehogs and foxes rustled their way round the boats, looking for dropped sandwich crusts and half-empty crisp packets. The sun disturbed our fretful dozing and spurred us on to collapse the tent and stagger across the road to the cottage for coffee and toast.

The summer came to an end – as it always does  – and we departed to our various courses and jobs. That summer could never be repeated anyway. In moving on, we jolly sailors lost touch with each other and other entertainments replaced the joys of sailing.

The village never lost its charm for me; enhanced by discovering that one of my favourite authors had written a trilogy of books loosely based on family life in Little Village and Big Village, with the Island across the sea playing an integral part. I made subsequent visits; with friends, with groups of children I was responsible for, and ultimately with my own husband and family. It became a place of pilgrimage; somewhere to go and lose the troubles or celebrate happiness. There was a stark contrast between the still quiet waters around the harbour and the crashing waves out on the
Spit. Waves that were so ferocious that year in and out, new methods of prevention had to be found to prevent the sea encroaching on the houses nearby.

I found out very early in our relationship that my husband had also sailed from the village – though at a different time from me – and that he loved it as much as I did.

 

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Winding the time clock on, our children became adults and needed less entertaining on holidays, so when the opportunity arose to spend two summer weeks in a cottage in ‘my’ village, we jumped at it. Part of me was worried that the village would have changed, that it would no longer be the magical place I remembered – that we both remembered.

It was like stepping back into a time capsule. The pub was still there – although it had added an extra wing and a conservatory – but the cider was just as good and the sandwiches – made from freshly caught crab – was wonderful. We could see the boat park from our bedroom window; people were still neglecting to frap their halyards, and although we didn’t have the credentials to venture into either of the yacht clubs, we didn’t need to sleep in tents either. I had my favourite author’s books on my Kindle and delighted in spotting thinly disguised landmarks as we walked the dog along the harbour side and around the various beaches.

It was a wonderful fortnight. We caught up with family and friends; the tiny backyard was the ideal venue for a family get together in the sunshine. The dog loved his seaside walks and I achieved a lifelong wish. I had sailed out to the castle on many an occasion – and  came back the same way, but I had never walked the mile and a half along the shingle bank, nor taken a ride on the little ferry boat that tied up at the harbour wall.

The strangest revelation of our holiday was the exploration of Big Village.

It wasn’t full of grockles and holiday shops anymore. Charity shops rubbed shoulders with a wine bar and a delicatessen. The Co-op was stocked with normal food and there was no sign of sticks of rock or boxes of fudge. At the suggestion of friends, we ventured further to the beaches further away from Little Village, and found some beautiful examples of Art Deco architecture along the sea view.

Big Village wasn’t such a bad place.

On our last day we met up with our lovely friends for a long and leisurely brunch in the sunshine at a cafe on the beach. A very happy start to the process of packing everything back into the car and heading North for home.

It was good to go back to Little Village and find it just as beautiful and enchanting as I had found it before. Better to still was to roam around Big Village and find that it wasn’t such a strange small town after all.

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At Sea – Week 32 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It was the first Tuesday of the month and just after eight o’clock in the evening, so the venue had to be Simon’s Wine Bar, because that was where Jo, Lea and I met up. We had been meeting here since the wine bar opened three years ago, and before that we had frequented a number of different bars and restaurants on a reasonably regular basis – holidays, childbirth and objecting partners excepted.

We had been friends from schooldays; Joanna, Leanne and Georgina, shortened to Jo, Lea and Gina over the years. We met for the first time, when standing in serried ranks in the school assembly hall, we were sent to our allotted form tutor and marched off to the classroom that was to be our base for the next five years.

Situated in the older part of the school, parquet flooring, dark wooden cupboards with sliding doors and piles of dust in the deepest recesses. We didn’t realise it at the time but we had been lucky enough to acquire Mr Beck as our form tutor. Out of all the first form tutors, he was undoubtedly the most human and easy-going.

At the time there were only four male teachers in our girls-only school; lovely Mr G who taught chemistry and was considered too scatty to have a form to look after, Mr Beck who taught physics and technical drawing, and the two religious education teachers; the Rev and the Perv. They only worked part-time and it was always a relief to walk into the classroom and find that the Rev was on duty. He at least was a real vicar whereas the Perv was a Methodist pastor who liked to massage the shoulders of girls that were too afraid of him to object.

Needless to say, he never laid a hand on me, Jo or Lea; according to our other friends we exuded an air of arrogance and rebellion. Whilst some teachers did their best to split us up we always managed to be sitting together for the next lesson like three magnets. This only changed when we had to make choices about the future and select our options for the final two years of school. Lea was artistic and creative, so art, pottery and needlework were easy options for her. Jo was the scientist, and whilst she had been known to connect up the Van Der Graaf generator to the classroom door and shock her less observant classmates – or student teachers – she was Mr Beck’s favourite and could do no wrong in his eyes.

I was used to the teachers looking at me in a funny way. My brain and I had the capacity to stun when sufficiently motivated  but I was always a rebel in my own lunchtime. No cissie uniform for me; I stalked the halls in jeans and Doctor Martins, daring any foolish teacher to reprimand me. It’s hard to be a rebel when there is no challenge though. I was the writer, the historian and psychologist. I was one of the first students to tackle the social psychology course and it was partly due to my high marks that the course – together with philosophy and sociology – was added to our curriculum.

Jo and I stayed on for sixth form but Lea went off to study hairdressing and beauty techniques. Her mother ran a couple of salons across the city and it was a given that Lea would step into her mother’s shoes one day. Had she been as much of a rebel as me, she might have objected but she was always the most compliant of us – and the most elegant and well-groomed. When her classmates were suffering from greasy hair and adolescent acne, Lea, having access to an endless range of beauty products and being blessed with clear skin, sailed through her school days with unnatural poise.

Jo went on to medical school and became a GP. I chose a university up in that London and lived a Bohemian lifestyle that resulted in me being left with two small children, a heap of debts, a pile of half-written novels and a deep spiritual wound inflicted by my poet lover who went off to the US to find himself. Fortunately my parents welcomed me and their grandsons home and I managed to scrape a living for the three of us by writing articles for women’s magazines and promising myself that I would finish my novels one day. By the time my boys were in their mid-teens, I had bought us a tiny terraced house laughingly described as an ‘artisan dwelling’, Lea was still single but had expanded the beauty salon chain and Jo had married a police sergeant and given birth to twins very shortly after. Family planning was never her thing – but then it hadn’t been mine either.

The three of us kept in touch throughout the years and once we were all back living in the same city, the monthly meetings began in earnest. As befitting her role, Lea remained elegant and beautiful, I had streaks of grey at my hairline – a  consequence of being disorganised and leading a life bedevilled by constantly having to unearth football boots, chemistry books and clean clothes from the  dark caves where my boys could be found, so that they wouldn’t get into trouble at school. They still got into trouble for their rebellious attitudes and a refusal to conform but I knew who to blame for that. Jo’s face was etched with worry lines even before the twins turned up; I commiserated with her over the posset stains on her shoulders and the fact that none of her pre-pregnancy clothes fitted anymore.

It was Tuesday and the three of us were sitting at our favourite table with a bottle of red wine breathing and three glasses ready. It was a few minutes before Jo and I put our own worries and thoughts aside in order to notice that something was wrong with Lea.

She poured out the wine and took an unusually inelegant gulp before squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath.

‘I have a problem, girls.’

Jo and I looked at each other, mentally assessing which one of us would ask the question. Under the table we did rock, paper, scissors. I usually beat Jo by wrapping her rock with paper but on this occasion she pulled a sneaky scissor trick and so it was me that put on the sympathetic face and asked. ‘What’s up Lea? How can we help?’

Jo kicked me under the table.

Lea put down her glass. ‘I think I’m in love.’

Double relief for Jo and myself. We started to smile and formulate congratulations but something in Lea’s face stopped us.

My turn to ask the questions again.

‘Who with? Do we know them – him – her?’ I hedged my bets. Lea bristled.

‘Him of course! No you don’t know him. He’s offered me a job too.’

Jo and I did a double take.

‘But you have all the salons. You don’t need a job. What kind of job?’

Lea looked at me pityingly. ‘I have good managers in all my salons. I need a change. I’m SO bored.’

‘What kind of a job?’ Jo echoed my questions. ‘Who is he?’

Lea took another gulp and another deep breath. ‘His name is Daryl. He is the entertainments manager on the Ocean Princess and he has asked me if I want to take on the beauty salon concession. It means signing up for a year and although the money isn’t wonderful, it would mean that I get to visit Florida, Italy, Spain – the itinerary is vast. The chance to get a real tan, evenings off, dinner at the Captain’s table, what more could a girl want?’

‘But, you’ve never been abroad Lea. Do you even have a passport?’

‘I know. I’ve always been too busy. I want to do something else with my life. You and Jo, you have children, Jo has a husband. I need a change. Can you sign my passport form Jo?’

‘Daryl? How did you meet him?’ I was a little miffed that she hadn’t asked me to sign her form but then I wasn’t really that much of an upstanding member of the community really.

Lea looked a little guilty. ‘I caught him trying to poach my staff.  He was a bit embarrassed and took me out to lunch to apologise. We got talking and well … you know.’ She finished lamely.

‘How old is he?’ Jo had the bit between her teeth now and the inquisitorial GP in her took over.

Lea blushed. ‘Twenty-five.’ she muttered.

‘That’s ten years younger than you. He’s a toy boy!’ I knocked back my wine and emptied the rest of the bottle into our glasses.

‘Are you really in love with him Lea or is it just the idea of sailing off into the sunset?’ Jo was still in her professional guise.

Lea looked at her watch. ‘I asked him to come and meet you. He’ll be here at nine o’clock.’

This was sacrosanct. Tuesdays were for the three of us. No exceptions. Ever.

I ordered another bottle of red and we didn’t bother to let this one breathe. I was the wordsmith and mine failed me for the moment. Jo concentrated on scratching a patch of posset she had discovered on her leggings. Lea was silent.

‘When will you go?’ I said eventually.

‘I haven’t signed any contracts yet but the next sailing is from Southampton at the end of the month and they need to have a manager in place before they sail. I think I want to do this girls, but I need your help. I trust you more than anyone else and if you think – well – if he isn’t the right one for me…’

This was a new element to our friendship. Lea had always been very choosy about men and neither Jo or I had ever sought an opinion on our partners – although I often wished I had.

Daryl arrived exactly at nine o’clock. He was handsome – in a theatrical way – he had good dress sense, an immaculate hair style and a tan that hadn’t come from a machine. He was charming, attentive and nothing like any man Jo and I had ever met before. He didn’t exactly sweep us off our feet but we could understand how he had captured Lea’s heart. The wine and the shock made us both dull and sleepy. Lea sparkled in Daryl’s presence.

Lea and Daryl went on to a club. Jo and I went home to our families in a taxi; we both felt old and boring.

By the end of the month Lea had sorted out her salons, signed up for a twelve month concession on a cruise liner and organised both her work and social wardrobes. Daryl continued to be the love of her life and though we cried on our last evening together, Jo and I wished them both well.

Lea was a great success as the manager of the beauty salon.

Daryl turned out to be less of a success; they had only been at sea for three days when Lea discovered him snogging one of the dancers backstage. He protested that he was just comforting her because she was homesick but the dancer told a different tale and within a few hours Lea had testimony from a parade of young girls who had fallen prey to Daryl’s charms.

He was offloaded in disgrace at Fort Lauderdale after breaking a few more hearts, by which time Lea had come to the attention of an aging but handsome millionaire who had signed up for a cruise to take his mind off the death of his wife. He signed up for another cruise when that one ended and carried on cruising until Lea finally agreed to terminate her contract and sign up to being his wife.

Lea sends us letters from her homes in the US. She never forgets our birthdays or those of the children. We think that she is happy. We hope that she is. We try to meet up on Tuesdays Jo and I, but it isn’t the same. Now it’s us that are at sea.

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Bring it all back home ….Day 1

We are on our jolly holidays – so this blog may be in bits and not all of them in a logical sequence – but that kind of sums up our families –  so fairly apt  really.

This week we are mostly in Hamble (or Hamble-le-Rice according to the signposts – nothing to do with risotto or pudding with a claggy skin – the rice is olde Englishe for Rise – so Hamble on the Hill really).  This area forms a link for Lovely Hub and I – we both spent (or misspent in my case) some of our formative years stomping around Hamble. Lovely Hub went to senior school here, and I wasted a couple of summers chasing (and sometimes catching) charming , suntanned grotty yachties with tumbled blonde curls and names like Giles, Piers and Jonty – usually coupled with at least two barrels of a surname.  Set on the Solent, for us it is a very special place.

We are just up the road from Hub’s parents and within easy visiting distance of the rest of the family.  Should you be interested, the house we are renting is on the market for £630,000 and is described as a ‘crewhouse’.  Ideal for housing international yachties and powerboat racers when they come here for Cowes week and all the other wet things that go on in this part of the world.  On a small and very select private estate of Art Deco bungalows built in the 1930s  – so posh that Hub and I didn’t even know it existed until we decided to rent it for a week.

As I know from said misspent youth, Hamble is a village designed for the the athletic pub crawler; you start at Ye Olde Whyte Harte, via the King and Queen and fetch up at The Bugle – there are others but this is a logical line for the inebriated sailor.

Before we even got here we had a mission to accomplish however.  A friend from way back moved to a village outside Oxford quite a few years ago and on another trip down South we had popped in to see her and her family – our two boys and her two boys were of a similar age and naturally hostile.  Hub and I had a nice time though.  We keep in touch and send birthday and Christmas cards and as she is one of our favourite people, we decided that the boys had matured sufficiently for another visit en route.

Lovely Hub brought cold meat and stuff to nibble; the boys and I decided to trust our luck to the motorway services.  Fools.  We pulled up at the M6 Toll services and were greeted with a burger place that didn’t bear either of the fast food names we were used to.  College Boy declined – he distrusts the unknown, but Uni Boy and I tested it out.  Overdone burgers, flaccid fries and totally charmless serving staff.  We won’t get fooled again.

The traffic was horrendous and so was the weather; torrential rain and forked lightning – very, very frightening (well, not really as Hub and I both like thunderstorms).  It slowed us down a fair bit though and we were already running rather late.  We were supposed to leave at 0900 hrs when I finished work but it was 1215 before we finally really hit the motorway.

Once we got to our friend’s house it was a great visit.  All four boys were bigger and more sociable.  If you listened to College Boy you would be under the impression that the planned hour-long visit (which stretched to two with no effort at all) was spent picking on him but he took most of it in good part – I thought.  He patted me on the head at one point and I flicked my hand out to brush him away and accidentally (no, honestly) caught his lip – so silly to put his face so close to my hand!  No blood – just a bit of localised swelling and a guilty Mum.

By the time we hit the road again College Boy was beyond reason he was so hungry.  I found him a BK in Newbury and once he had the food in his hands he let us have it – with both barrels – apparently we had conspired to starve and humiliate him and he hated all three of us.  He gets like that when he’s hungry.  We bailed and hit Sainburys, giving us a chance to stock up on some essentials and him the opportunity to demolish his burger (no bun or fries – he’s off carbs this week – another reason for being so grumpy).

The nice lady that owns this house was actually staying in the one-bedroom annexe attached to it; so she didn’t have far to go to let us in – just as well as I had arranged for us to be here late afternoon/early evening and we rattled in around 2030 hrs.  The house was as big, airy and well-equipped as we’d been led to believe from the photographs, and once all the bedrooms were allotted and luggage lugged in, Hub and CB went off to kill some kebabs.

Back twenty-five years when Lovely Hub and I first got together we used to get our kebabs from a shop in town called Zorbas.  It was (and still is) owned by a chap called John who came from Iran and who I knew by sight from my ‘A’ level sojourn at the local Tech.  Whenever we come home we have to make at least one pilgrimage to Zorbas; they have the best chilli sauce and all four of us will very happily bunch through a couple of trays of their  green chillies.  Sometimes John is there and he greets us like long-lost family.  So good to be back home again.

By the time my hunter-gatherers had returned with their kill, Uni Boy and I had unpacked (a little) and set up the laptops (yay for wifi).  After stopping to feed and drink (hard, cloudy cider – we really are home), we finally managed to stow everything away before midnight.  It was dark when we arrived so we didn’t get to see much of the outside of the building but decided to save that as a nice surprise for the next morning.  The TVs worked, the wifi worked (slow but constant at least) and the boys had stopped bickering.  Even the bed wasn’t too squashy.