A Short Story on a Travel Theme - Strangers


by Philip Spires

We arrived more than two hours later than planned, but the west of England summer light had not yet faded even to dusk. A soft golden glow was just growing across the sunset, which had just tinged a flat-calm sea beyond this tumbling village. We were tourists here, strangers in this small, tightly-knit place.

For us it was just part of a tour, a long weekend snatched in common from the clutches of our combined, ever demanding careers. I felt utterly liberated, that beautiful evening, as we walked the quarter mile or so down the steep dry cobbles from the obligatory car park into the car-less village, the deadlines and demands of advertising for once confined outside the limits of this small place. And I could tell from the spring in Jenny's step that her battles with bottom sets in Lewisham were now further distant than our three days on the road.

There was a small gift shop, a tourist-trap trinket place, just a hundred yards along the lane. I bought the newspaper our early departure from St. Ives had denied me, my daily fix of political gossip now long established as an essential feature of my adoption into London life. I explained that we were strangers here, had driven down the side road in the hope of finding something interesting and had nothing booked.

The shopkeeper said we had just three options - the Old Hotel just down the lane, a bed and breakfast at the bottom by the harbour or the farm near the junction with the main road, back where we had turned off.

"It was different years ago," he said, "when lots of people used to stay over, but now it's all day trippers and holiday homes. Ten years ago we had half a dozen guest houses, but they've all closed down."

The Old Hotel was just two hundred yards from the shop, at the head of the steep cove that housed the tangled triangle of the village. It was a bit beyond the price we usually paid and had AA stars framed over its reception desk, but we fell for the place and checked in, just for one night. It was the kind of mock Jacobean black and white inn, whose lack of a straight line just might have suggested it was original. But the beams were hollow and the plaque above the entrance said, "Refurbished 1958."

"Do you have any luggage to bring from the car park?" the receptionist asked. The name tag pinned to her blouse said, 'Hilary, Manageress'. "We have a man with a donkey and sledge who will bring it down for you." She wasn't joking.

I lifted our two hold-alls and said it was all we had. She smiled, offering politeness but communicating knowledge tinged with judgment. It was in an era when it was still unusual for a couple to sign in without obviously trying to appear married.

We took the key for room number six. There were only eight and the other seven keys were still hanging on their hooks when we took the lift - yes, the lift! - to the upper floor. Number six was at the back, of course, right above the kitchen extractor fan and overlooked an enclosed yard with a yellowed corrugated plastic roof. It hid an array of lidless dustbins, from which a hint of an aroma sweetened the still air when we opened the windows to encourage the previous occupant's cigarette smoke to leave. We dropped the bags and walked down to the sea to absorb the last of the late springtime sun at its setting.

The beach was shingle and small, hard-packed against a harbour wall that extended a good fifty yards into the shallow sea. A couple of clapperboard buildings, largely rotten, clung to its prominence, their profit long past, but their structures all but remaining. There were doors missing and one structure had no interior, the uncovered entrance revealing merely sky beyond. At one time, clearly, the locals had something of a living from this place, fishing perhaps, maybe small trade, smuggling in poor times, salvage by design, who knows. And then came the tourists, the stranger trade of nineteenth century invention that evaporated when the trunk road widened and rendered the place no more than a day trip from anywhere this side of Birmingham or London.

As we walked back up the deceptively steep single track that bisected the village, we passed several open doorways seeking air on this unseasonably balmy evening at the end of May. After London everything here felt so cosy, so small, warm and unthreatening, as if the place itself were welcoming us into its embracing fold.

We saw just two other people, both descending the path, and independently both offered greeting. "Isn't it pretty," said Jenny. "Don't you wish you lived here?" I declined to answer.

We ate at the Old Hotel. There was nowhere else. We ordered the grilled sole with parsley butter. Potatoes and broccoli were the 'legumes de saison'. It took over half an hour for the food to appear. We finished the bottle of house white we had ordered to go with the fish long before even the smell of cooking wafted through from the kitchen. We got significant giggles speculating on how far out into the Bristol Channel the boat had to go to catch our order. We ate. It wasn't bad, and then we moved across to the bar, the four steps needed to change location effectively redefining us from guests to locals. A concertina glass partition separated the areas in theory, but tonight it had been opened wide for ventilation. The rest of the evening became a tale of three women, Hilary, Sue and Sandra, all of whom have dreamt.

The hotel bar is the only place to drink, so it's a pub, complete with its regulars. A half a dozen men are collectively and determinedly engaged in preventing the oak top from rising, their planted elbows firmly ensuring its continued sojourn on earth. They are passing the time of night with what seems to be a predictable set of platitudes. "I bought the D-reg because I thought it would work out cheaper in the long run, what with the smaller servicing bills and the like... ...But you ought to do more of that sort of thing yourself and then you wouldn't have to pay anything at all... ... Yes, I know, but I just don't have the time. Have you, these days?... ...Give us another, Sandra... ...You go just beyond the first turning... ...Down past the egg farm where my brother used to work... ...They are really cheap if you buy them by the sack... ...bloody heavy, mind you..."

She is forty going on sixty, utterly contemptuous of what she sees before her, yet utterly resigned - or condemned - to servicing its every need. She is rather large and quite square, both in face and body. She's been like that ever since she can remember. Black hair, cut quite, but not very short and swept to a wave at the front showing that she has spent not a little time tonight cleansing and preening herself before starting work behind the bar at the Old Hotel. On the other side of the argument is a series of slobs, one of whom we only ever seem to see from the back. His head is triangular with apex at the base. A pair of key-in-keyhole ears protrude. He was probably called 'wing-nut' by his classmates at school. I resist the temptation to grab an ear-key and twist it to see what it might unlock. From the bar talk we can clearly hear, the answer surely is not much.