Sally locked the door hastily and darted into the alley flanking her gift shop. Because there she was again. Her new neighbour. What was she doing, wafting about the village at five o’clock on a rainy evening in February? Almost certainly yet another import from London, newly-ensconced in what should have been a family home for locals but was now doubtless a ‘fabulous little getaway’ bought for ‘an absolute song, darling.’ Sally had heard all too often the newcomers braying outside the local deli, congratulating themselves on their ‘amazing little find.’ Thanks to the newly-acquired thirst for second homes by the sea, the narrow village streets were positively jammed with SUVs these days. While her son and his wife were still renting, still scrabbling about for a deposit that was moving further and further out of reach.
Such was Sally’s internal monologue as she grumbled her way round the Co-op before trudging home. The Wafter had moved in three doors down the month before. With some careful strategizing Sally had so far managed to avoid her, but it was only a matter of time, because after three sightings this week it was clear her new neighbour was stalking her.
Arriving home, her Jack Russell, Colin (the name had been her husband’s idea) marshalled her bossily towards his lead. No escaping a rain-sodden walk along the coastal path on this evening, or indeed any other. She shoved on her boots, turned out of the front door and… oh for crying out loud, there she was again!
‘Hello! Nice to meet you! I’ve just moved in to number six.’
The woman was now sporting a bright red raincoat and wellies with pictures of cherries on them. Good God, what was wrong with her? This was Cornwall, not Fulham. Sally threw her the ghost of a smile, hoping the Scarlet Pimpernel would take the hint, and marched down the path, Colin bustling at her heels.
‘I’m Lavinia,’ the woman called after her.
‘Of course you are,’ Sally muttered. She flung back, grudgingly,
‘Sally! Nice to meet you.’
Lavinia? Well that would explain the tacky incense burner on her windowsill. Not to mention that ridiculous buddha in her front garden. Probably shopped herself senseless in Harvey Nicks for ‘lovely things’ to adorn her ‘charming little cottage’. Sally knew she was being mean. But she didn’t care.
But Lavinia clearly, inexplicably, wanted to make friends. Well, she could whistle for it. Sally struck out towards the bay, casting her customary glower at the sea as it churned viciously below. Definitely another storm on the way.
There was no sign of Lavinia the next day. Her standoffishness must have worked. Excellent! Later that afternoon, she had just clambered into the window to display some new plant pots when, glancing up, she saw Lavinia leaving the baker’s opposite. Heading straight for the shop. Sally felt like a goldfish spotting, all too late, a net descending into the water. She retreated hastily, lost her balance and knocked over the umbrella stand. Damn!
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,’ Lavinia said from the doorway.
‘The shop’s open,’ Sally retorted. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if people come in, should I.’
‘Lovely pots!’ Lavinia said, glancing towards the window. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but…’
And before Sally could object, she was re-arranging them. The cheek!
‘There,’ Lavinia said. ‘That’s better!’
She caught sight of Sally’s face.
‘Oh, forgive me,’ she said. ‘That was terribly rude. It’s just, I’m an interior designer and I spent years as a window-dresser, but I’ll put them back…’
Sally suddenly felt guilty for being so grumpy.
‘Honestly, it’s fine,’ she said. ‘How are you settling in, anyway?’
‘Oh, you know,’ Lavinia said. ‘It’s a big adjustment. Bit of a gamble, moving all the way from Southampton. It’s been quite hard so far, meeting people…’ To her horror, Sally saw that Lavinia’s eyes glittered with tears.
‘You’ve moved down here for good?’ Sally asked.
‘Yes. Fresh start and all that. I got divorced a few years ago, the kids are grown up and living abroad. And then…when my mother died last year…’
‘I’m so sorry,’ Sally said. ‘Was it …Covid?’
‘Yes. It was such a shock. One minute she was fine, and the next…’
How many times had Sally heard stories like these? More than she cared to remember. The village had had its own share of tragedies.
‘I know how hard it is starting somewhere new,’ Sally said. ‘Took us years to be accepted as locals and even now it’s tenuous.’
‘Where did you move from?’
‘Clapham,’ Sally replied. ‘We moved down here to run the pub in the harbour, originally. So trust me, I know all about big adjustments. Listen – would you like to walk the dog with me this evening?’
‘Oh yes, please! That would be lovely! I’ll see you later. Bye, Sal!’
‘Bye… er… Lav,’ Sally called after her, instantly regretting the abbreviation.
She sold four pots from the window display that very afternoon.
Over the coming weeks, the two women walked the dog together most evenings. Sally hadn’t realised how much she’d missed the company of other people. She’d seen less and less of her friends over the past few years, lockdown giving her the perfect excuse for solitude. She’d thought she’d enjoyed being reclusive, until she’d met Lavinia.
‘For someone who lives by the sea, you don’t seem to like it very much,’ Lavinia observed, as they trudged along the coastal path one evening.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘You glower at it. Like it’s upset you. Like it’s a neighbour you’re doing your very best to avoid,’ Lavinia chuckled.
Sally stopped, the wind whipping her hair across her face.
‘You see that little inlet, just across the bay? James and I used to swim there all the time.’
She turned to face Lavinia.
‘He didn’t die of a heart attack. I know that’s what I told you, but he didn’t.’
She swallowed hard.
‘He was a lifeboatman. Had been for years. But he always came home. Until one day, he didn’t. Three years, and… I’m sorry. I can’t talk about it.’
Lavinia placed her hand gently on Sally’s shoulder. Oh please, take it away, Sally prayed. Because I think I might dissolve completely if you don’t.
‘I can’t begin to imagine what that must have been like,’ Lavinia said. ‘You’re very brave, you know.’
‘You stayed. Faced life here, without him. Must be hard, living in a place filled with memories. I ran away from mine.’
‘Fresh start takes guts, Vinnie.’
‘There was nothing keeping me there, once Mum was gone,’ Lavinia said. ‘I miss her every day.’
‘What was she like?’
‘Huge fun. Wicked sense of humour. That buddha in my front garden? She made me buy that years ago. Used to say the position of his hands in his lap was highly suspect. She’d say, look at that buddha, pleasuring himself in full view of the neighbours.’
‘Oh, I did wonder about the buddha,’ Sally said. ‘I just thought, you know, what with the incense burner and everything, you were a bit… away with the fairies.’
‘Nope. Garden tat all down to mum. Tell you what, though – her appetite for mischief got us into trouble sometimes. Once, she tore round Waitrose in her new mobility scooter nicking whatever took her fancy… halkidiki olives, shortbread biscuits… Tom disapproved of her. But then, Tom disapproved of most things. Probably did me a favour, bringing things to a head. I used to fantasise about leaving him, but I’d never have had the guts to do it. Frightened of being alone, I guess.’
The two women gazed out to sea, each lost in their own thoughts.
‘You know how you said you used to love swimming in the sea,’ Lavinia said suddenly. ‘Why don’t we go swimming together when the weather warms up?’
‘No, I don’t think…’
‘At least think about it,’ Lavinia urged. ‘Don’t you think maybe it’s time you and the sea made up?’
‘Don’t push me!’ Sally snapped. ‘I know what you’re doing. Move on, get back on the horse, bla bla bla… I’ve heard it all before!’ She was shouting now, her fury astounding even her. ‘I hate the sea now. It took away the person I loved most in the world. So you can stick your therapy!’
And before Lavinia could see the tears threatening, she stomped away up the path, Colin scampering behind her. The waves slapped vindictively against the cliffs. Oh Lord. She’d behaved so badly. She knew Lavinia was only trying to help. But she didn’t want help. She didn’t want anything from anyone.
She came home the following evening to find a card on the mat. She put it on the kitchen table, unopened. Then she chucked it in the bin. Took it out again. Slid it between Delia Smith and Nigel Slater. Took it out again, screwed it up and chucked it back in the bin, hurling yesterday’s used teabags on top of it so there was no going back. Because it was undoubtedly an apology, so she didn’t want to read it because then she’d have to apologise too. And she didn’t want to. Which wasn’t at all childish. To hell with it. She was better on her own – and Lavinia was better off without her.
A week went by, then two, then three. She wondered where Lavinia was buying her bread, because it certainly wasn’t at the baker’s opposite. She was sure she’d heard Lavinia’s front door click quietly shut as she left to walk Colin yesterday. But she’d probably imagined it. Why would Lavinia want anything to do with her, after she’d been so awful?
She was clearing out the chest of drawers in the spare room when she found it. Her swimming costume. So she hadn’t thrown it away after all. She held it to her face and closed her eyes, inhaling the scent of the sea in the pale green, salt-faded fabric. Could she ever swim again? She put it on and stood in front of the mirror. And, in that moment, it was as if James was standing beside her just as he’d always done after they’d swum together, enveloping her in a towel, rubbing it briskly across her shoulders, her back, her neck, before enfolding her in his arms, warming her body with his own.
Vinnie was right. It was time.
She threw on some clothes, walked round, and knocked on Lavinia’s door.
The beach was deserted, barring a few late-evening swimmers, as Sally and Lavinia stood at the water’s edge. The distant hills were rinsed with the last pink flush of evening; seagulls wheeled lazily overhead. Sally was trembling, goosebumps puckering her skin.
‘You’re sure you’re ready for this?’ Lavinia asked.
‘I’m terrified,’ Sally said. ‘I’d never admit that to anyone else, but I am.’ She turned to her friend.
‘You’re the only person in the world I don’t have to be brave with, Vinnie,’ she said. ‘My kids, my friends, they’re all desperate to hear that I’m coping, that I’m OK. On some days, I am. But on others, I’m just not. It’s such a relief to be able to say that to someone.’
Lavinia smiled, taking Sally’s hand in her own. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We’ll do this together.’ The two women inched forward.
‘I don’t know if I can, Vinnie…’
‘Well, I’ll tell you something,’ Lavinia laughed, ‘I’m not going in on my own!’
Anyone passing by on that evening in May would have thought it the simplest of scenes; two middle-aged women wading into the surf, hands clasped in solidarity, their laughter carrying on the breeze like a song, up over the clifftops to the skies and beyond. They might have marvelled at their bravery, little knowing that the spring chill of the sea was, in fact, the very least of it.
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