Postcard Two - The Merry Maidens
The stories I'm writing along the way will be published in their earliest forms. Normally, I'd polish a story until I was (almost) completely happy with it, but these are meant to be rougher creations - the kind of stories I would be telling myself if I was actually walking along this route.
The Merry Maidens
The car engine sputtered and died. I cried aloud in frustration and dashed my hand against the steering wheel, swearing loudly before bursting into equally noisy tears. I’d thought – more hoped – that it would keep going until I was home. Home. A short laugh escaped. I no longer had one of those. I’d left the house I’d lived in for the last ten years and fled across the country, as far from Steven as I could get. Home was now my sister’s house in St. Buryan. It wasn’t especially small, but with a family of four children, the addition of a wayward sister as a lodger made it feel more than a little crowded at times and I knew I needed to get my own place as soon as I could. That had been the purpose of my trip to Penzance that afternoon, to get some advice from a solicitor friend of my brother-in-law’s about where I stood legally. I needed to know if I could force Steven to sell the house, or at least buy out my half of it. His verdict hadn’t been particularly encouraging. I could, but it could be a long process if he chose to fight it – which he would – particularly as I had left him. Luckily, Karen had insisted on taking photos of the injuries I’d arrived with and had enlisted the local policeman (another friend of Gary’s) to come and take a statement from me at the house.
It had been embarrassing laying out all the details of what I’d been prepared to put up with over the years, all in the name of pride. My parents had been against me marrying Steven in the first place: I was eighteen to his twenty-eight and had no experience of life outside our small town. He already had one divorce behind him and my parents didn’t trust him. I didn’t care. I was swept up in the thrill of an illicit romance with an older man. We kept our wedding a secret until the register was signed and it had been consummated for fear they would try to stop it.
At first, things were good. My parents gradually accepted my husband and we were happy in our little flat. We decided I didn’t need to go to university now I was married and I was happy to get a job and contribute to our life together. Then Steven’s job took him to London and he was unhappy commuting, so we moved to the capital.
‘I get that you don’t want to leave your family Kate, but my job has to come first. It’s me that keeps a roof over our heads, remember?’
The last time I went home was for Karen’s wedding to Gary. It was a far different affair to our registry office union and I made the mistake of telling Steven that part of me wished we’d done things differently. We had a blazing row. The encounter with Karen over breakfast the next morning was excruciating.
‘What have you done to your wrist?’
‘Oh, you know what she’s like when she’s had a drink. Tripped over her dress going up the stairs.’
I nodded quietly, unable to meet my sister’s gaze and she narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. She didn’t say anything at the time, but she looked at Steven differently after that and it became easier to stay away from family gatherings, especially when she and Gary moved down to Cornwall, although we continued to keep in touch by phone and email.
I couldn’t bear to admit my parents had been right and my marriage had been a huge mistake. I began to wonder if he’d told me the truth about why his first marriage had ended. Had his wife really had an affair with his friend, or had she just been a little bit wiser than I was and got out as soon as she was able to? It took me a long time to admit that I needed to get out while I still could and after I’d woken up on a cold kitchen floor for the second time in week to find the house in darkness, I’d thrown whatever clothes I could into a holdall and fled from the house. It hadn’t occurred to him to take the car keys with him – I was so cowed by that time I don’t think he thought I’d have the courage to leave him. If I’d taken the time to think about what I was doing, he’d probably have been right, but something propelled me out of the door that night before I had the chance to think it through or change my mind.
I phoned Karen from the car and asked her if she could recommend a cheap hotel. I had no money, but I promised to pay her back if she’d just pay for a couple of nights while I found some work.
‘Don’t be so silly. Come to us and you can stay as long as you need to. You’ll be able to find a job to tide you over until you work out what you want to do. I won’t hear of you going to a hotel. Let me look after you for a bit.’
Unable to argue I did as I was told and turned up in the early hours of the morning, dishevelled and shaking, to be met with a loving embrace that made me flinch and her weep.
‘What has he done to you?’
She had organised me in much the same way as she organised her children – quietly, efficiently and leaving me no room to argue, not that I could have done anyway. The last decade had taught me to be instantly obedient, but Karen never raised her voice if I was too slow to do what she asked. She was gently encouraging and made me take baby steps towards thinking and acting for myself again. The trip to Penzance had been a challenge she’d set me. Could I drive myself there now the adrenaline that had fuelled my initial flight to Cornwall had left me?
‘Karen’s explained your situation to me,’ Tim said when I rang his office, ‘So I thought it might be easier for us to talk over a late lunch, make it a bit less formal?’
‘That sounds lovely. Thank you.’
We arranged to meet at the Admiral Benbow pub and over a light but surprisingly filling fish pie that melted in your mouth in a creamy froth of butter and cream, followed by the stickiest toffee pudding I’d ever had, he laid out exactly what I could expect to happen over the course of the divorce proceedings. It was daunting to hear it all spelled out and I couldn’t help the feeling of failure that crept over me as he talked.
‘I’ve been through this myself,’ he said gently, ‘And from your face, I suspect you’re berating yourself for your marriage not working. From what little Karen shared with me, you did everything you could to make it a success, but sometimes things are just not meant to be and nobody should have to put up with what you have.’
My smile was watery, but I made it stick. Karen had told me much the same thing after all. It was going to take some time for me to learn to believe that I hadn’t in some way deserved what Steven had done. After all I’d willingly married him behind my parents’ back, I’d agreed to move away from my family and had let myself be cut off from everyone except Karen, I’d hurt people who loved me. I wasn’t a good person and bad people needed to be punished. But I would do it. I would listen and I would learn.
After we’d eaten, I needed some time to myself, so I’d walked through the streets and around the harbour until it was almost dark and only then did I return to the car. I was so preoccupied that I didn’t notice until I was some way out of the town that I had taken a wrong turning somewhere and didn’t recognise the road I was on. Pulling into a layby I had a quick look at my phone and was relieved to find my current route only added an extra five minutes to my journey and by a stroke of luck I was still heading in the right direction. As the battery was almost empty, I turned it off, trusting that there would be signs for the village as I got closer.
Typically, the inclement weather which had been threatening all day, arrived as soon as I set off again and the fog rolled in from west so it was like driving through cotton wool. When the warning light flashed up on the car I prayed that whatever was wrong with it wouldn’t break down completely until I was safely back at the house, but I’d just driven through Boleigh when the engine coughed and died. I dried my tears and tried to turn my phone on, but it stubbornly refused to show me the Apple logo that would indicate it still had some life in it. I remembered seeing Boleigh on the map and guessed it wasn’t too far from my destination, so grabbed my bag and coat from the back seat, locked the car and set off. I couldn’t see very much in front of me but reasoned that if I stayed on the main road I would eventually come to the sign for the turning I knew led straight to St. Buryan.
After about half an hour my teeth were chattering, I still hadn’t located the turning and I realised with dismay that the ground under my feet was soft and springy. I’d somehow managed to wander off the road and had no idea where I was. Faint sounds drifted through the air but what they were and from which direction they had come I couldn’t tell. Night had fallen fully by then and there were no lights for me to head towards in the hope of finding civilisation. It was getting cold though and I knew I had to keep moving if I was going to survive the night. I didn’t know the details of how long it took to get hypothermia, but I was pretty sure that sleeping rough on an exposed moor in the middle of November would make me a likely candidate to fall victim to it.
In my confusion, I thought faint echoes of music drifted, the notes carried along on the rolling sea of greyness. Then out of the fog, a figure emerged. I’d never been so glad to see someone in my life. Under one arm he carried what looked like bagpipes.
‘I thought I could hear music!’
He smiled. ‘Just a small gathering come together in celebration. If you would consent to wait until our gathering is ended, we will see you return safely.’
‘Oh that would be wonderful! I broke down on the main road, but my sister’s house isn’t far from here.’
The fog parted a little as he led me to where the rest of his party were, the sound of the music growing clearer as we drew closer, until flickering torchlight illuminated a small group of dancers accompanied by a lone piper. My rescuer handed me a rough cup filled with a sour tasting drink and wrapped his cloak around my shoulders.
‘You look cold,’ he said, when I attempted to protest. ‘The music and the ale will keep the cold from my bones.’
Then he raised his own pipes to his lips and joined in the merry tune. The ale was stronger than anything I was used to and I felt it thawing me as it slid down my throat. A warm fuzzy feeling spread through my body and I relaxed despite the unusual circumstances in which I found myself, letting the music envelop me and wrap me in a blanket of goodwill. My eyelids drooped in a long blink and the more I forced them open, the quicker they closed again. Even the semi-conscious awareness of strong arms lifting me didn’t wake me fully and enjoying the feeling of safety I sank back into the embrace of my dreams.
When my eyes eventually flickered open, bright winter sunshine assaulted them and I startled, a sharp pain piercing the back of my hand. I looked down at it to see a needle protruding from it.
Karen’s voice trembled, completely at odds with her usual brisk tones.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘A bit fuzzy. What happened? The last thing I remember is being on the moors. There were people playing music and dancing and the man said if I waited until their party was finished, they’d make sure I got home okay.’
‘Kate, your car was found abandoned on the road – it looked like you’d broken down and tried to walk home. The woman who saw the car was concerned, so when she got home she telephoned the police. I’d already rung them to say you were missing, so when the car was registered in your name they called me and we started searching for you. We found you unconscious against one of the Piper stones up by the Merry Maidens and there was no sign of any party up there. You’d obviously taken a blanket out of the car with you, which was sensible, but I don’t understand why you didn’t stay on the road.’
‘It was foggy and I got lost.’
‘There was no fog last night. It was as clear as day – the kids were stargazing in the garden.’
I stared at her.
For more information about The Merry Maidens stone circle click here.