Escape to the golden beaches of Cornwall with a brilliant new novel by bestselling author Catherine Alliott.
Escape to the golden beaches of Cornwall with a brilliant new novel by bestselling author Catherine Alliott.
Celia peered nervously through the rain-spattered windscreen at the towering hedges lining the narrow lane we were snaking along. Sodden trees formed a dark canopy overhead. She wrapped her vintage silk shawl more tightly around her bony shoulders and gave a mock shiver. ‘Remind me again why I’m coming with you?’
I gave a small smile. ‘You know very well. To paint the swirling seas and the billowing blue skies – your words, I believe, to persuade me to let you come in the first place.’
‘I had an idea it would all be bathed in golden hues and honey-coloured light, that’s all,’ she said petulantly, gazing out into the gloom.
‘It is, for about ten days a year,’ I told her cheerfully. ‘If we’re lucky we’ll catch one of them.’ I gave her a bolshie grin and her eyes widened in genuine alarm. ‘And – for moral support,’ I reminded her. ‘Your words again. For which I’m super grateful. And don’t worry, the weather will perk up. It’s always a bit mercurial down here.’
‘Yes, well,’ she rearranged her shawl and slid her bottom forwards in the passenger seat beside me, setting her faded orange espadrilles on the dashboard. She lit a cigarette. ‘Can’t have you entering the lion’s den on your own, can we? Might never see you again. And anyway, I’ve heard too much about this famous family to pass up the chance.’ She dragged on her cigarette, narrowing her eyes contemplatively. ‘Actually, I might paint the old girl, Belinda, while you do Roger the Dodger. They won’t know I only do landscapes, will they? I could do a Francis Bacon on her,’ she said suddenly, sitting up delighted. ‘All naked and bloody and flagellated – the final reveal coming to light in a dramatic spin of the easel! Can’t you just see her face?’
‘She’d faint clean away,’ I told her as I hit the brakes. A speed camera heralded yet another grey, damp little village with opposing rows of blank-faced stone cottages, punctuated by the ubiquitous green Spar at the end. ‘Roger, on the other hand, might like it.’
‘Oh? Is he into bondage?’ She glanced at me, encouraged. ‘Bit of a Max Mosley? The gentry often are.’
‘I’ve no idea what his sexual predilections are, but he’s certainly not the crusty old buffer you’re imagining. He’s quite open-minded.’
‘Oh good. I’ll twinkle at him.’ She grinned. ‘See if I get a response.’
‘Do not,’ I said nervously, knowing Celia’s charms of old. Twinkling was mild within her repertoire.
She chuckled darkly, flicking ash out of the window. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be demure and saintly. I’m on my best behaviour, remember? Your ex-father-in-law is safe with me.’
‘Is he an ex?’ I wondered aloud. ‘I mean, Hugo’s my ex, sure, but Roger is still Peter’s grandfather, and I haven’t remarried, so technically . . .’
‘Yes, but Peter’s his blood, you’re not.’
‘True. Ridiculously, I still think of them as my in-laws. Isn’t that weird?’
‘Beyond bonkers,’ said Celia cheerfully. ‘But then I think you prolong the whole relationship just to get up Christina’s nose.’
‘Absolutely not,’ I replied vehemently. ‘And anyway, nothing could get up Christina’s nose,’ I added, somewhat ruefully.
Christina, my ex-husband’s second wife, a lovely, gracious creature, the soul of kindness, actually, had been nothing but tremendous to me and Peter: so inclusive and generous and uncomplicated, never questioning that I might want Hugo to go to every single rugby match at Peter’s school, every parents’ evening, every house play – with me beside him, of course – even persuading him to pitch up, and not to worry if it clashed with their own children’s events, she’d go on her own; they were too young to mind. I told Celia so now.
‘Making sure he’s perceived as the model divorced father,’ she said caustically. ‘Just as Belinda and Roger are keen to be perceived by one and all as the model ex-in-laws and grandparents. They’re a calculating lot, those Bellingdons.’
‘And you, Celia Lonsdale, have got a nasty mind. They were all totally beside themselves at how it turned out, as well you know.’
‘Guilt,’ she said primly, flicking ash out of the window again which promptly blew straight back in. ‘They all know they behaved badly and are praying you’ll find a new man and be happy. Belinda is on her knees most nights. The deliciousness is that you categorically won’t, so they can’t all relax, dust off their hands and say, “There. How splendid. Flora’s found someone at last.” ’
‘Only because they want me to be happy,’ I replied uncertainly.
‘Bollocks.’ She snorted. ‘As if they care.’ But this last was said softly and I ignored it. I was well ahead of her, anyway.
‘She will ask, you know. Belinda. About my love life.’
‘Oh, I don’t doubt it. And you’ll say it’s all going swimmingly, when in fact we both know it’s Tim when you’re really bored, and Rupert when you’re feeling up to the banter.’
I took a hand off the wheel and bit the skin around my thumb. ‘Thing is, Cele, I don’t really fancy either of them. Wouldn’t actually care if I never saw either of them again.’
‘I know,’ she said quietly.
It was all there, in those two little words: and I’d thought it such a state secret. Such a revelation. I was pretty sure I talked the talk about them both when I came back from dates, said what a marvellous time I’d had. Clearly I wasn’t going to win a BAFTA. Celia stared diplomatically out of the window, knowing, occasionally, when to stop. Knowing not to say, get on with your life, Flora Bellingdon, fifteen years – yes, fifteen – after your husband has left you. Hanker no more for a man who’s happily remarried with two children. I also knew the real reason Celia was coming with me. To stop me making a monumental fool of myself in the bosom of my ex-in-laws, which, trust me, I would only do if I was catastrophically drunk, and those days were over. Sort of. As we rose to the top of a hill and the countryside opened up tantalizingly around us before disappearing as we plunged once more into a valley, I recalled Celia’s eyes, some weeks ago, huge and horrified in the studio we shared, when I’d told her where I was going this summer. She’d lowered her brush. Turned slowly from her easel to face me.
‘Sorry . . . sorry, Flora. Run that by me again? You’re going to paint Hugo’s father, in Hugo’s family pile, to add to the groaning collection of oils in the ancestral hall, when we all know—’ She broke off, stunned. ‘Why in God’s name did they ask?’
‘Because I’m the natural choice, surely?’ I’d said defiantly. ‘They want to commission a portrait and – well, I’m a penniless portrait artist. I’m also Peter’s mother. Of course it should be me. Imagine if they hadn’t asked me, you’d be up in arms about that,’ I finished triumphantly, which was true. Celia would certainly have had something to say. Then again, she had something to say about most things.
‘Yes, but they expected you to turn it down, don’t you see?’ she’d implored. ‘They expected you to say – I’m incredibly touched, Belinda, but I’ve got masses of commissions this summer, why don’t you try so-and-so, I hear he’s terrific. I mean, sure, if you were neatly remarried, or at least attached . . . but this is supremely insensitive under the circumstances.’
‘Oh, they won’t know that, will they?’ I’d muttered.
‘They don’t know how I feel about Hugo.’
‘Belinda does, you’ve seen to that.’
Belinda, like Christina, had been on the receiving end of one or two of my more shameful, demented phone calls. But not for a good few years, as I’d told Celia.
‘I know,’ she’d said quickly. ‘I just think they could quietly get someone local and you’d never know. Or even someone super famous like Nicky Philipps – they’ve got the dosh, and you wouldn’t question that. You’d just think, ah yes, well, of course.’
‘Well they haven’t, have they?’ I’d said shortly. ‘They’ve asked me. And anyway, it’s only the two of them rattling around on their own down there. Hugo and Christina are sailing round the Greek islands or something.’
‘Great. While the ex-wife works her butt off for his parents.’
I hadn’t responded. And I was quiet now as I navigated the lanes, remembering the two spots of colour which had risen in anger in her cheeks, her sharp eyes fierce as she’d resumed work on her canvas. We drove on in silence. At length the rain abated. The sky began to clear and, as we reached the top of another hill, the sun finally came out. In a blaze of glory, the beauty of the Cornish countryside suddenly unfolded dramatically around us: a panoramic sweep of granite walls, sheep-dotted fields flowing over lush green hills and flooding into valleys: countryside I knew so well, having grown up here. Not in one of the pretty, low-lying farms, or in a grand house overlooking the sea like the one to which we were headed, but a stone cottage on the outskirts of a closed-looking village, similar to the ones we’d already passed through.
My mother no longer lived here, having darted instinctively to London to be near me when Hugo had left me and Peter was small: she knew viscerally I needed her, even though I had funds enough for all the help in the world. There she still was, round the corner from me, this born-and-bred countrywoman, in a one-bedroomed flat off the Wandsworth Bridge Road, a good twenty minutes’ walk from a decent patch of green, traffic roaring past her window every day. Our old home, or indeed, just Home, was coming up in moments but I wouldn’t tell Celia. She’d be far too fascinated and want to stop and peer, but I’d have to do it with several boulders in my throat. Instead we cruised on past the plain granite house, set back from the road, with its four sash windows and garden at the back, plus a small paddock for the pony which was all I’d ever wanted in life.
The field and the pony had been rented and bought for a song respectively by Mum when my father had died, in some vain attempt to plug an enormous gap, which, to our intense mutual surprise, it did. Mum was so like that, I thought, as the house disappeared in my rear-view mirror: making impulsive decisions which confounded all expectations and turned out to be dynamite. I certainly couldn’t do without her in London, but I knew she missed her friends, her own life, her little decorating business, which had worked so well down here, but was harder to set up in town with all the competition.
‘Oh nonsense, I’ve got heaps of friends and loads of clients,’ she’d say, if I even vaguely suggested her returning to Cornwall.
I knew she had friends – Mum made friends wherever she went – but on the client front there was Mrs Farr downstairs who she did curtains for, Charlie and Anna who adored her and I suspect invented work for her, and Odd Brian who liked to change his walls as regularly as his boyfriends and got Mum in to supervise. But choosing paint colours doesn’t pay the bills, and what little money she did earn was mostly from tutoring History of Art, which, years ago, she’d taught. Sometimes she’d pass a few students on to me, particularly if they were rich Russians, claiming she had far too many, but really I knew she worried I didn’t make enough from my portrait commissions, about which she was not wrong.
Fortunately, that only affected my own finances. Peter was superbly looked after by Hugo, whose career, after he’d taken over from his father as head of the family water company, had soared to stratospheric heights. I never had to worry about school fees or his holidays, which were coming up, now that school had ended. Hugo was supremely generous – too generous, I sometimes thought. Belinda and Roger, too, showered him with birthday money: a car, I knew, was coming for his eighteenth. None of them could have been kinder, I thought with strange mixed feelings as I gripped the wheel. We plunged down yet another steeply banked lane, one which I knew led eventually to the sea. And as Peter had got older – well, he’d appreciated the finer things in life. Of course he had. His expensive boarding school, and Hugo’s alma mater, had seen to that. So if his friends took him scuba diving in the Caribbean, leaping from their fathers’ boats, well, it was only natural he’d repay their hospitality at either his grandparents’, or his father’s, in Hampstead. I mean, naturally they came to me, too, had always come when he was younger: Jamie, Sam, Freddie – all the gang. But Freddie’s parents lived down the road from Hugo, and Sam’s just across the Heath, which made it far more convenient to be at his father’s when he only had a weekend from school before heading back on a Sunday night. He’d felt uncomfort able, though: and when it had been two weekends at Hugo’s on the trot, and then potentially half-term, I remembered him ringing from school.
‘The thing is, Mum, Sam’s asked me sailing in Norfolk for a few days, and I’d really like to go. And then Phoebe and Minty have both got parties near Dad’s, so I thought—’
‘Yes, of course stay with Dad, makes complete sense,’ I’d said quickly, never wanting him to feel awkward, ever, about a situation that was not remotely of his making. I’d vowed long ago never to play the guilt card.
‘But I thought maybe I could pop over on the Sunday, before I go back?’ he’d said, nevertheless feeling that guilt.
‘Oh, that’s mad, Peter – it’s no “pop”, as we know. Tell you what,’ I’d said, making it up on the spot, ‘I need to go to Green and Stone for paint that week, why don’t we meet halfway and have lunch in the King’s Road?’
He’d agreed happily, relieved. And I’d taken him to the Bluebird. Even though Peter went carefully for pasta and not a steak, and I even more carefully went for a salad, what with a glass of wine each and then two tubes of oils in the ruinously expensive paint shop opposite – he insisted on coming with me so I’d had to buy something – I’d had to ring Mum on the bus on the way home and grab a Russian, pronto, to pay.
It had been lovely to see him, though; we hadn’t drawn breath. Luckily, Peter wasn’t of the grunting, laconic school of teenage boy. He was open and chatty about school, work, mates, sailing, which he loved – girls, even – and I’d drunk in his floppy blond fringe, huge smile and creasing blue eyes over lunch. So like his father. And I’d almost fainted with pleasure when he’d asked me to look around Oxford with him.
‘But don’t you want Dad to do that? He’ll know far more than me about colleges.’
‘Exactly, and I know he’ll push Brasenose – and why not, I might well apply – but I kind of wanted to look with my own eyes. And actually, I thought you might like to.’
‘I’d adore to,’ I’d beamed. Of course I’d adore to. The culmination of all my motherly pride and his hard work – the final hurdle. I couldn’t stop smiling, actually, and had recklessly ordered us another glass of wine on the strength of it.
‘What are you looking so happy about?’ Celia cut into my reverie as I wound down a now extremely familiar lane, brimming with red campion and orange crocosmia, to the coast.
‘What? Oh, I was just thinking about Peter and me looking round Oxford.’
‘Oh, right. I thought you’d already done that?’
‘We have. I was just remembering us creeping round Christ Church. We weren’t supposed to go in but a door was open and we got lost and giggly up a staircase. Some crusty don threw open his door and barked so ferociously we nearly fell down the stairs.’
She smiled. ‘You’ve done a good job there,’ she said candidly, which was high praise from Celia, who mostly said I obsessed about Peter. ‘Or the school has. But at that price they bloody well should. Is that the sea or the sky?’
‘The sea,’ I said happily, my heart rising inexorably at the sight of it, and also, at getting Celia off the thorny topic of the iniquities of a private education, despite the fact she’d had one and I hadn’t. ‘It’ll flit in and out from now on, but keep your eyes on that gap in the hills.’
She did, and buzzed down her window too, sticking her sharp little elfin face out to feel the air, which, now that the rain had cleared, was fresh and soft, full of that just laundered smell of soaking wet grass upon which the sun has settled to steam dry. You could practically see it growing by the roadside from that heady combination.
‘So we must be nearly there, then,’ she said, bringing her head back in and taking her feet off the dashboard, edging to the front of her seat like a child. ‘Didn’t you say they lived near – oh, hello.’ She lurched towards me in surprise.
I’d taken a sharp left turn through a gap in the hedge into seemingly open country and was driving my poor ancient car at some speed down a red clay track with grass growing down the middle, bumping her up and down along the ruts. Celia clutched her seat and looked alarmed. But I was determined not to ease her in gently. She was such an urbane fount of knowledge in London where she’d grown up; such a sage generally about life, the mind, the heart, despite – or perhaps because of – her own disastrous love affairs. Sometimes I wanted to shake her out of her cool, implacable composure. I knew I had the upper hand in the country, and I wanted her to get a sudden eyeful of Trewarren, with no warning. The back drive, coming as it did across the home farm, afforded that better than the front. I wasn’t immune to the grand old estate’s charms either and, as we drove under the tall avenue of chestnut trees, the lush green pastures stretching away in an erratic jigsaw of low stone walls, it cast its shimmering, ambiguous spell upon my heart.
I had to slow down, though, when a heifer blocked our way.
‘How many bulls are there in this field?’ Celia asked nervously, closing her window. ‘Surely they fight?’
‘Cows,’ I told her. ‘Highland ones, hence the horns. Roger’s into rare breeds.’
‘Like his wife, by all accounts.’
I shot her a reproving look. The shaggy blonde moved slowly away, looking unnervingly, as Celia observed, like Boris Johnson, and sent us a baleful stare. We rumbled over the cattle grid to where gravel replaced clay. Past the agricultural barn we went, with hay bales stored one side and loose boxes the other, the latter these days housing classic cars rather than horses, and on towards the arch of the coach house and stable yard where the real equines lived. We purred through the yard, slowing down for the cobbles, and anything that might be tied to a ring and ready to swerve its backside nervously into my path. All the gorgeous creatures my hungry eyes sought, though, were sensibly in the shade, at the back of their stables: only a noble iron-grey had his Roman nose over a door and regarded us with mild interest as we rolled on through and under a corresponding arch. As we emerged, Celia was treated, not only to the best view of the house with its famous John Soane façade creeping with pale pink roses, but crucially, to a panoramic view of the sea, which we drove towards, and which faced the front.
‘Oh!’ She sat up, duly impressed. Speechless, actually.
The large, rambling old manor sat serene and comfortable, its windows glinting in the sunlight, presiding over a shimmering sweep of pure blue. Out of sight, at the foot of a cliff, which wasn’t as steep as it looked and which I knew every inch of how to clamber, lay a pale sandy beach. In a far corner was a small wooden boathouse, inside which Hugo and I had spent many happy hours. All we could see from here, though, was the edge of the garden, which stopped abruptly at the cliff, and was a riot of daisies and cowslips. A more manicured lawn and a formal gravel sweep led to a curving flight of shallow stone steps, worn thin by centuries of feet – not to mention bottoms, for this spot afforded the best view – then double front doors, invitingly open under a splendid fanlight. So many laughs on those steps: so many friends gathered, so many flirtations, so many intense, moonlit conversations. If only they could talk.
Writer Catherine Alliott takes a look around the village that was the inspiration for her novel A Rural Affair