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Authors: Maggie Makepeace

Out of Step

BOOK: Out of Step
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Out of Step

Maggie Makepeace

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Epilogue

Chapter One

‘I dunno what all the fuss is about,’ a voice protested on Nell’s car radio. ‘I mean, if they’re that bothered about the drought and the reservoirs getting empty and stuff, then why don’t they simply fill them up from the mains?’

Nell gave a shout of derisive laughter and switched off. She concentrated on taking a difficult bend in the road, and when she was back on the straight again, she thought: Water – that’s definitely a priority. I want to live in a place where I can watch it flowing past my window, preferably in both directions, so it had better be tidal. I want a little clinker-built dinghy, so that I can potter up and down it and explore the creeks. I also want birds, particularly waders, so I’ll need mudflats. I want paintable scenery without crowds. I want privacy and peace. I don’t want too difficult a journey into work every day. And I don’t just want jam on it; I want quince jelly.

She smiled as she remembered what her mother and father would have chanted, as they used to, to Nell’s childish demands:
‘I want, I want,’ was Fanny’s cry!
And then she felt uneasy all over again at wishing to leave their house behind her, and begin again elsewhere. If they were still alive, she thought, I’d have left without a qualm years ago. People of thirty who still live with their parents are definitely sad. But I suppose I’ve stayed on all this time because it’s been my only link with who I am – who I
was
.

The road opened out as it reached the ridge of the hill and Nell, looking to her right, saw a large smug Georgian house serene in its own parkland about halfway down
the hillside and overlooking the boat-rich estuary of the River Torrent. A sign by the gates read: ‘Thrushton Hall’, and below it a smaller one: ‘Eely Private Moorings’. She wanted to stop for a better view, but even now the narrowness of the road prevented her until after she had passed the Thrushton estate’s Home Farm buildings. Here there was a convenient layby and an uninterrupted view down over the fields, which fell away steeply to the woodland at the bottom by the water’s edge. On the other side of the river the precipitous ground was fit only for trees, mostly oak and ash towards the river mouth (proper trees, as Nell always thought) and then increasingly the more commercial sitka spruce the further west she looked, until, at the head of the estuary where the tiny Eel tributary merged with the Torrent, the folds of the hillside were almost entirely submerged in a uniform dark green. The open grasslands beside and below her were now a miserable yellowish brown after a summer almost devoid of rain; not like the lush South West at all. It was rather – Nell searched for the appropriate word – sinister. Would it ever rain again? She vowed never to complain if it did.

She got her binoculars out for a better view, and scrutinised the side of the big house and part of its long formal gardens. Mmm, she thought, I could fancy a place like that – maybe a fraction out of my league though? And I’d have to spend far too much time watering the herbaceous borders. And it’s too high above the river. I’d like to be closer. She focused the glasses on the old two-span stone bridge at the upper limit of the estuary, and along the opposite bank to the Eel Creek where there was a spit of land and half a dozen long boats without masts, moored in a line. She followed the flow back downstream, past a small mid-river islet and eastwards, until the woodland on her left entirely hid the Torrent and its exit to the sea from her view.

She sat on for a while as the September sun warmed the top of her head through the opened car roof, and watched as a couple of tiny bright figures walked the coastal path below her, on the diversion caused by the river mouth which took them inland in a loop. One of these days, she thought, I must do that walk,
all
of it. And then it came to her: Now Martin’s gone, I can. I can do
anything
. It was a revolutionary idea.

A movement on the ground nearby caught her eye. A small brown bird flew away from her with an unexpected flash of white from its tail.

‘A wheatear!’ The first of the autumn migrants. She was delighted. It was high time she migrated too. She took herself, started the car again and moved off. Then almost immediately there was an unexpected sideroad leading down towards the estuary. She overshot it, but backed up for a better look. It was only a rough farm track with a grass strip down the centre and it looked unkempt and rutty, but she decided to risk it anyway. She drove down cautiously in first gear. Trees hung overhead, forming a dappled green tunnel, and then quite soon the track widened on a bend and the wood to her left gave way briefly to open fields and an even better view of the river with its wide curve to the south, the dunes at its mouth, and the grey sea beyond it. Now she could see the well-known sailing club on the north bank, with its plastic tenders neatly arranged down the backbone of the marina walkway, and the multicoloured yachts moored out in the broad stretch of water sheltered behind the head, all pointed the same way by the tide.

She stopped again and scanned the vista with her binoculars. The track ahead of her ran down even more steeply and disappeared amongst trees at its foot, but there surely, just visible through the topmost branches were a pair of chimneys? Yes, and a suggestion of terracotta-coloured roof tiles.

Now, that, Nell thought, driving on downhill, could be more like it!

Robert Hayhoe sat in his office in the upstairs room of Bottom Cottage (in which he also slept) and stared out of the east window at the curve of the river and the nearly empty coastal path. The sun glinted invitingly on the water. In his vegetable patch below he could see his courgettes turning into useless marrows almost before his eyes. It was much too good a day to waste indoors, working. There was firewood to chop and stack before the onset of winter. The garden needed weeding. The hedge wanted cutting … He sighed, and addressed himself to his computer, reading the columns of figures on the screen and forcing himself to make sense of them.

He heard a car outside just as he had got his brain back on track again, and frowned. It wouldn’t be his milk or the post because both were left in a wooden box in the hedge, up by the top road. It was probably more bloody grockles assuming his lane was a public right of way, and parking in his turning circle whilst they walked down to the sea. He’d always meant to put up a sign, ‘Private Road’, but hadn’t got round to it. He didn’t want to call the world’s attention to the cottage. He valued its solitude. Anyway, it was now the end of the summer season and he had the whole of the winter ahead of him to have the place to himself. He wasn’t going to fuss about it. He didn’t have time to spare, anyway. His clients were pressing him to get their accounts sorted out. This one had to be finished today.

His eye was caught nevertheless, a few minutes later, by the sight of a woman standing just beyond his fence, framed by the runner beans on one side and the eight-foot sunflowers he’d grown for Josh and Rosie on the other. She had a pair of binoculars round her neck and she was looking straight at him.

She went on staring so unselfconsciously that he realised she couldn’t see him. The sun must be reflecting off the window glass making it one-way only. He indulged himself for a few moments by looking back at her, picking up his own binoculars from the windowsill and examining her face in the same analytical way that he watched the birds on the estuary. She had thick brown hair cut short, broad cheekbones, a wide upturned mouth and a spattering of freckles. An intelligent, sensual sort of face, he decided; rather appealing.

Then she frowned, and turned abruptly away. Had his glasses glinted at her, giving him away? He put them down in some confusion, feeling foolish. Spying on women wasn’t something he ever did. What was he thinking of? He made himself concentrate on the job in hand, and was only dimly aware of a car starting up as she drove away.

The following Monday she turned up again. He was sure it must be her, even though she had her back to him. This time she was sitting on a camp stool on the bend of the river, and apparently painting the view. She was further away this time, so Rob felt able to look at her again through binoculars. He could even see some of her picture. It looked pretty good. He hoped she wasn’t going to make a habit of driving down his lane. If she did it again, he would have to discourage her. She could always get to the coast path further along by the sailing club like everybody else. But she was probably only a late holidaymaker, so he most likely wouldn’t have to bother. Some people have all the luck, he thought. It’s going to be years before I’ll get the chance again to have a peaceful uninterrupted break where I can please myself. Then he caught himself up. How can I say that, living here!

The next Monday she didn’t appear, and Rob (having in an idle moment labelled her
Miss Dowsabell
) was fleetingly disappointed, and then forgot all about her. So
when he saw her again, four weeks later, he was unprepared for feeling pleased.

She was drawing this time, and it seemed that his cottage was her subject. The morning light streamed over her shoulders and gleamed in the spikes of her fringe, which were being blown up above her face by the breeze. He couldn’t see her expression as it was in shadow, and he didn’t like to use his glasses because she was directly facing him. Anyway, he hadn’t time for all this. He must get
on
. He worked for a while feeling irritated with himself and then, abruptly, he got to his feet and went downstairs. The back door was the nearest, but he deliberately went through his kitchen and out at the front, so he could see where she had parked her car.

It was a blue Citroën 2CV and it wasn’t actually on his turnaround at all, but at the junction of his lane with the coastal path (where it altered course to go behind his garden) tucked carefully out of the way under the trees. She was still trespassing though. He followed the path round to the riverbank, and along it until he reached her. He’d meant to say something pleasant and meaningless, and then lead up to his main purpose gradually, but somehow it all went wrong.

‘Hello,’ she said, glancing up as he approached. ‘I was beginning to wonder whether you had legs.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Well, I only ever see your top half through the window.’

BOOK: Out of Step
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