Good morning! (Or, at least, it is morning here in the USA.) I’m Syd and I grew up in England in Dorset. However, my father’s home was in Porthleven, Cornwall — just a few miles from Helston. We spent summers there and the Cornish coast is one of the things I miss most about England.
Porthleven has beaches to the east and rocks and cliffs to the west. I loved going west the most and exploring the tidepools. Heading east, though, past the town beaches, and a little further on is Loe Bar.
What a fantastic place. It’s a wee bit eerie there with the calm freshwater lake on one side of the sand bar and the ocean on the other. It’s one of the spots where the Lady of the Lake supposedly took back the Excalibur after Arthur’s death! If you walk around the lake from the Porthleven end, you eventually come out at Helston. Porthleven is also a stormy place in winter and has seen many wrecks.
The two stories I’m offering snips from today are both set in and around Porthleven and Helston.
Jack saves Nehemiah from drowning, or worse, on the Cornish coast, surprised to find he has an American in his midst. He’s also afraid that his fellow villagers will kill Nehemiah rather than look at him, all for the peridot ring on his finger. He takes Nehemiah in, sharing his home, and eventually his secrets.
Pressed into the navy, Nehemiah is lost at sea, and lost for words when Jack pretends to rob him when he washes up on shore. Close quarters makes for close companions, though, and his growing feelings for Jack make it hard for Nehemiah to return home when he has the chance.
By the time they clambered over the stile, Nehemiah’s wrist was cold and slick under Jack’s grasp as if he held a drowned man. Jack shook the dread off, and they navigated the perimeter of the field. Being out in the open the moonlight helped a little more, but they were still hunting blindly for the stile out to the moor. The moonlight made the dark shapes more confusing, not less.
Once out on the moor, Nehemiah tugged at Jack’s arm. “Jack, let’s find somewhere to stop. Please.”
Jack caught the note of panic and used his superior night vision to lead Nehemiah to a safe spot.
“Did I pace us too hard for your rib? I’m sorry. I wanted us clear of the road and then out of tyak Trist mes.”
“Speak English!” blurted Nehemiah in frustration. “You call me a foreigner, but you don’t even speak your own tongue.” They sat in silence until Nehemiah mumbled an apology. “I’m so lost, Jack. I’m in a strange land. I could be arrested if any discover me before I get to the consul. I’m used to being in charge of my own life. Nothing’s been right for months. And there was something following us in that field I swear. Something big.”
Jack smothered a laugh. “It’s no matter between us, Nehemiah. A few sharp words come with being ow gour.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Nothing. A slip of the tongue. You’re right, there was something in the field. Tyak Trist mes means farmer Trist’s field. That’s all. I wanted us out because even dairy cows can bang ye up good against a hedge if you disturb a herd of them as they sleep.”
Nehemiah let his own low chuckle loose. “And I thought it was some Cornish devil tracking us. And don’t think I didn’t notice you evading my question. Ow gour.”
Jack made a funny choked noise in the dark and forestalled more questioning by offering Nehemiah some brandy.
They sipped as the dawn came up over the moor and ocean.
Jack was silent and then said, “Nehemiah, my home is beautiful. It’ll break me to leave here.”
Jack and Nehemiah looked at a cormorant gliding through the golden light over the gorse and heather. It flew out over the cliff, and paused between the sea and the sky, and then plummeted into the waves for a fish.
Nehemiah’s reply sounded weak in the constant roar of the surf and cry of the gulls. “There are other parts of the coast. Even twenty miles away may be enough for a new life if your neighbors travel as little as you say.”
Jack groaned. “What’s the point? What will that new life be?” He gave Nehemiah a piercing look. “I’ll be alone.”
Nehemiah took the jump. “Jack, your choice is laid out for you: your country and loneliness, or a new land and me.”
Jack sighed, and Nehemiah grabbed his arm again. “Will you stop being such a miserable bastard, Jack? Are ye determined to be unhappy and stay where your life is in danger and there’s no hope for happiness? I promise ye: America has land to love as well.”
“I’ll think on it,” said Jack sheepishly. “We should start walking. We can follow the coast a little, but then we need to head northeast. We can pick up a track closer to Gweek. Just stay quiet if we meet anyone, and your strange accent will not betray ye.”
Nehemiah took the jibe as a tease and let the mood lighten as they walked. And in truth, it was hard not to feel his spirits lift as they walked in the early morning light, watching the coneys leap away across the heather and the lizards emerge to bask on flat rocks. Jack named plants as they passed. As an antidote to the mine and the morning in Chapel, he’d spend his Sunday afternoons away from the village, exploring the moors.
“Even your flowers sound funny,” Nehemiah mused. “Campion and vetch!”
“Careful I don’t tumble ye among the gorse, you young sea pink. These moors are called the wrestling fields from all the midsummer couples tussling and courting.”
Jack picked a sea pink as he spoke and threaded it into Nehemiah’s button hole. Then he blushed at what he’d done. Nehemiah blithely marched on, pointing at a chalk hill blue butterfly, and then a kestrel. He turned and walked backwards to say something to Jack and then, unaccustomed to the fit of Jack’s Sunday shoes, stumbled on the rough ground.
He lay sprawled while Jack laughed.
Jack wiped his eyes, and came over to help Nehemiah up. He approached warily in case he would be pulled down.
“Jack!” Nehemiah’s voice was strained. “Jack, I’m bit! I startled a viper as I fell!” Nehemiah held out his hand. Sure enough, two puncture marks were already swelling. “Dear God, Jack, I don’t want to die having just met ye.”
“Hush, baban. You’ll not die. You may sicken, but a viper cannot kill a man.”
Col and Bri are in Bri’s native Cornwall for their holiday, their more exotic trip cancelled thanks to Col’s bad money management. Bri loves Col dearly, but sometimes he really hates acting like a sugar daddy. When an offer crops up from Bri’s extended family to completely change his life, and Col’s, Bri thinks it might be a great idea. But nothing in mystic, mythological Cornwall is as it seems, and Bri might be making the biggest mistake of his life.
Many of the shopkeepers are familiar to me from childhood, but I’m still an emmet to them. It’s not enough to be born here. Your great-grandparents must be natives and no one can have left. Then you’re local. They give me abrupt nods of recognition, but won’t remember my name. Col doesn’t care. He falls for every tourist tale and trinket. I know he doesn’t believe any of it; he’s just determined to not say “Marbella.”
Col’s holding a book about Cornish legends— no TV he says when I raise my eyebrows—and is inspecting a tea towel. It’s good linen, but has that damn prayer on it. Col chants it aloud. “Listen, Bri: A Cornish Prayer: From Ghoulies and Ghosties / And long-legged beasties / And things that go bump in the night, May the good Lord protect us.”
“You should worry more about your credit card going bump.”
His face crumples. I feel terrible, but more worried about a public scene: Aunt Sal still has some village reputation. She and dad grew up in the cottage. They may have forfeited their native status, but she still gets a “morning Miss P.”
“Shit. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not a child, Bri. I’m on holiday. Trying to have fun. Give it a try sometime.”
He says it quietly, and moves to a rack of postcards. I’m relieved he hasn’t screamed at me. He must have taken Monday’s lesson to heart. He’d needed sunglasses on our way to the beach and camped it up in a gift shop. I’d been sharp later. “Out is one thing Col, but this isn’t London.” His chastened, downcast eyes had been infinitely moving and sexy. I’d wanted to take him home and scold him more. Today, he’s the picture of injured dignity, and, since shopping is intended to soften him up for tomorrow’s hike, I pick up a tacky piskie keychain and dangle it Col.
“He looks like you. Give me your stuff. I’ll get it all. The cottage is free, we’ve got return train tickets—our entire budget can be for fun.”
Col examines the piskie. It’s a gimcrack thing, but the expression on its face does look like Col when he’s trying not to laugh.
We trade guarded looks. I say nothing when he picks up a brochure for coach tours, and he bites his lip when I pick up a scuba flyer. There are bumps in the night, but they’re all explained by the headboard hitting the wall. Col’s whistling in the shower the next day. His smile barely dims when I say: let’s hike along the cliffs instead of the beach. I want to show you the tide pools.
I’m tense. This is my domain, unbruised by holidaymakers, it’s calling me back. I wish we’d never left for the cities. If he hates it, I’m not sure we’ll last past this holiday. Col’s not a walker, but he’s put on sneakers, and is packing a knapsack. I take out his I-Pod, but let him add his new book.
There are tide-pools two miles from town. He walks nearly as far to get to the tourist beach. Although he hates my diving, he’s patient when I detour into the scuba centre. He’s a timid sea swimmer, but does endless lengths at the gym pool. He’s freaked when I go beyond the surf or underwater. He’ll paddle a bit, but he makes me laugh by saying the ocean is unnatural. On our first day, I induced him into the waves, but he’d tripped, then panicked when the backwash pulled him along.
He’s alarmed when I buy two sets of flippers, masks, and snorkels.
“Oh Bri, I can’t, the waves…”
I risk an endearment. “It’s okay little piskie. We’ll be in a pool.” Whoops, wrong word. I see from his face he’s imagining a chlorinated, heated pool with tanned muscled bodies to watch. Like in Marbella. “Tide pool,” I amend. He nods, and we walk along in silence for a bit until we reach the cliff tops. The village is behind a hillcrest and no building is in sight. The ocean’s to our left and there’s a sweep of gorse and heather to our right. I’m no botanist except here, and I point out thrift, campion, and pinks. He nods politely, and points out a butterfly. A Londoner his whole life, even a cabbage white is new to him and when he sees a cinnabar his eyes are intense.
“The ground is bouncy,” he says after a while.
“Weird isn’t it? It’s the type of grass and all the salt.”
“I might spring off the cliff,” he says morbidly.
The path is perilously close to the edge. Tripping could send you over. “I’d catch you.”
Col smiles at me. Since there’s no one around, I pull him close and kiss him before pointing to a small depression up ahead. “There’s the steps.”
Col squeals all the way down. Steps is an exaggeration—there are rough cut treads from ledge to ledge on a low part of the cliff. A few people use it in summer. The tide pools are almost deserted even in emmet season. There’s a sinister beauty to the cove’s rock slabs, gullies, and caverns. The surf crashes against grey boulders. The tide’s almost all the way out. I check the tide tables, and warn Col being away from the steps after the tide comes in means being trapped at the cliff base at best. At the other end of the cove I can see a family camped out near a rock pool. I lead Col off in the opposite direction. He nervously looks at the sea.
“We’ve got hours yet. I won’t let anything happen.”
We set up camp on a slab of quartz-shot rock. Col stretches out and reaches for his book. I take it away and say: swim first. I point to a waist-deep pool. He sighs, but gets into the sun-warmed water, and we splash around. I persuade him to swim and get his hair wet. He’s grumpy about losing his hair gel with no mirrors around to repair the damage, and he does look funny with his hair flopped forward, but no one is here to see his lapse. I show him how to float face down with the mask and snorkel and he’s fascinated by the anemones, brine shrimp and hermit crabs. He won’t agree to put on the flippers and come into a bigger pool with me.
“It has seaweed,” he says with a shiver. “Big bits.”
“Seaweed’s like grass.”
“It goes under the cliff, and I can’t see the bottom. You know I need to be able to stand up.”
I argue: a cave isn’t the same as under the cliff; he doesn’t have to swim in that part; and, I’ll be beside him. He’s adamant and has a cloudy look brewing. I divert him with lunch and we eat baguettes with runny brie and nectarines. He settles to read and nap. It’s going better than I’d hoped, so I don’t assert my nominal authority. I put on my flippers and slide into the dark water. It’s much colder in the cliff shadow, but it keeps me moving. I’m not going to try the cave without scuba gear so I work on regaining my skill with a snorkel. My eyes adjust to the underwater dimness, and I enjoy the minnows, crabs, and half-remembered weeds. I scoop up a perfect razor shell for Col. He’s dutifully tugged on limpets, popped bladderwrack, and stuck his fingers in cervix-like anemones, but hasn’t seen a razor shell. I drop it. Something moved in my peripheral vision. Large, rainbow-scaled. A tail fluke as big as my flippered feet. This time, I’m more in control, but my biceps tremble as I haul myself onto the rocks. I lie there a moment, beached, then roll over, remove my flippers and pick my way back to Col. He’s half-asleep and mumbles when I take his book from his chest. I read for a bit, then I lie to Col and tell him the tide will turn soon.